The troubling drama ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ always hits the mark

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” –  Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is in trouble.

She’s the oldest, 17, in a working-class family with younger siblings, her mother (Sharon Van Etten) and an aloof, frosty stepfather (Ryan Eggold), and this troubled teen often feels overlooked.  Ignored.  Her mom’s semi-disregard for Autumn is not out of malice, but with other kids to tend to, her eldest – in a pinch, when such time-squeezes may appear in bunches – can fend for herself.

So, this reserved, unsure-of-herself teenager tolerates her way through her small town in Pennsylvania as a high school student from 9 to 5 and a grocery store cashier in the evenings.  She doesn’t appear to have many friends or lean on an extensive support network, but thankfully, her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) shows general care and concern, like a sister or thoughtful BFF, but two 17 year-olds’ personal histories don’t equal 34 years of maturity.  Alas, Autumn could use some adult wisdom right now.

She is pregnant.

She does not want a baby.

She is in trouble.

Writer/director Eliza Hittman (“Beach Rats” (2017)) places Autumn, Skylar and us on a raw, uneasy journey – that feels entirely authentic – from rural Pennsylvania to New York City.  It’s an impromptu field trip of the most serious order and with no chaperones.  Hittman’s close off-camera proximity doesn’t offer any comfort for the girls, as they bid to navigate through The Big Apple’s urban minefield of subway logistics, crowded foot traffic and cold concrete in every direction.  “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” depicts intimidating physical surroundings in both Autumn’s humble township and a bustling metropolis, but they are both seen through the lens of inexperienced girls.

The film taps into this vulnerability from the immediate get-go in the opening scene, when Autumn proclaims, “He’s got the power of love over me.”

Our young protagonist doesn’t seem to possess influence anywhere, which includes an unsupportive home environment, a hostile workplace and – with this pregnancy – intimacy with an unknown partner.  Throughout the picture, Hittman expresses – and Autumn and Skylar live through – the daily, unfair pressures placed on women through slanted interactions (both subtle and blatant) with men.

In a March 2020 BUILD series interview, Hittman explains, “I was just thinking about a way to create an atmosphere of hostility towards these young women rather than having a conventional antagonist.”

Thinking back, there’s probably not a single positive exchange between the girls and the various older men (in their 30s and above), but perhaps one might discover one or two during a second viewing.  Actually, a particular male subway worker isn’t chauvinistic with the teens, but he’s no bastion of comfort either.  To be fair, most New York City subway employees are not Fred Rogers disciples.

Anyway, the girls do run into a college-aged man in their travels.  Jasper (Theodore Pellerin) is – by all appearances – an awkward, nice kid, and he seems free of malice, but his intentions aren’t wrapped in philanthropy either.  He’s attracted to Skylar, and hence, his motivations are clear.

It’s also obvious that Autumn is not only colliding into confrontations with males, but also with a combative family planning monolith, at least in her hometown.  Over the last 40 years, local and state governments have chipped away at Roe v. Wade in several ways, including raising specific emotional hurdles.

Prerequisites to an abortion may involve reading mandatory pamphlets, watching required videos, coping with an artificial waiting period, and more.  The system forces our young protagonist to deal with these barriers, and at one point, she looks away to some random point on an impersonal office ceiling and silently begs for the red tape madness to mercifully end.  This is, however, Small Town, U.S.A., so a trip to The City that Never Sleeps becomes a necessity.

For anyone with a daughter, sister, granddaughter, mother, aunt, grandmother, niece, or female friend, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” should be required homework, as Hittman, Flanigan and Ryder paint a troubling picture for young American women in 2020.  Certainly, Autumn’s and Skylar’s experiences don’t fit into all teenagers’ or 20-somethings’ narratives, but there’s no question that Generation Z faces notably fewer choices than their mothers, and male chauvinism remains as ever-present as death and taxes.  Will it ever change?  Don’t know, but for the foreseeable future, women will continue to face…trouble.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2  out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits:  Focus Features; Clip credits: BUILD Series

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