Familiar outrages generate a low-key stunner in the third feature from poetic realist Eliza Hittmann. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the story of a young woman dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. It has that in common with Nell Dunn's Up the Junction and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (it also shares an ungainly title with the last film).
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a working-class Pennsylvanian, has an advantage over the earlier protagonists. She lives in a country that – at least for the moment – permits women the choice of an abortion. There are no explicit horrors here. She hobbles together a gimcrack plan, hooks up with a pal and cranks it into awkward motion.
But the accumulation of variously sized inconveniences heightens anxiety as we stagger towards an interview sequence that, drawing only the vaguest answers from Autumn, points boldly towards habitual abuse. Hélène Louvart's camera bounces energetically about gritty locations. Julia Holter, known for baroque pop, exercises restraint in her melodic scoring. It's a simple tale, but it contains multitudes.
We begin with Autumn delivering a defiant performance at a school concert. Hittman’s own screenplay cleverly teases out family dynamics during the subsequent dinner. When her mum urges the girl’s stepdad to compliment her, he grudgingly offer up a “your mother would like me to say…” compromise.
We soon learn that her grumpiness has a specific cause. Visiting a local clinic – which does little more than offer an over-the-counter test – she confirms she is pregnant and contemplates options.
Hittman’s research feels sound. The official language hits the right beats and the smaller cruelties crack home. After asking sternly if she is “abortion-minded”, the lady invites her to view a video that, from what we see of it, trades in all the familiar anti-choice imagery.
Yet the script doesn’t wallow in cheap conflicts. We don’t really learn if the video disturbs Autumn. She gathers some cash from her job at the supermarket and, latching on to cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), sneaks off to an abortion clinic in New York City.
Anyone unlucky enough to have seen the recent anti-choice screed Unplanned, will… well, will not see any comparisons worth making. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, winner of a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, paints no sort of sunny picture of the termination procedure.
Autumn is frightened. Concomitant worries about money and parental response hang over every tense moment. But a respect for the workers shows through. One is understanding about her inability to pay in a lump sum (Autumn doesn’t want any record on the family’s health insurance). Another inhales sympathetically when she explains how the Pennsylvania clinic may have given her inaccurate information.
The film’s heart-rending core arrives when the final official – eager to gather information about relationships and sexual history – gently asks her a series of questions that require only the answers “never”, “rarely”, “sometimes” or “always”. Has her partner pressurised her into sex? Has she interfered with her contraception choices? And so on.
Already impressive, Flanigan, in one long unbroken shot, brings us through a spectrum of uncomfortable emotions. It’s a terrific display of suppressed feeling and a great example of how a writer, thinking clearly, can, with only sparse hints, persuade audiences to fill in the gloomiest gaps.
We never learn who the father is. At least two equally unhappy prospects open up, but there is every possibility it’s someone waiting unseen in the wings. That proves a wise choice.
Not every decision Autumn makes is the right one. She is not always the kindest or most understanding individual. But Never Rarely Sometimes Always allows her to, within the constraints imposed by society, take control of her own story and negotiate her own solutions.
If the word were not a perennial turn-off, we might risk calling Hittmann’s film “inspirational”.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available online to buy or rent