Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a fierce tale of female solidarity, a perceptive look at the ordeal of having to navigate the US healthcare system and a striking portrait of adulthood that arrives before its time. In Eliza Hittman's film, now streaming on BookMyShow Stream two years after its Sundance premiere, these narrative strands are wrapped up in a deceptive stillness that lets the film land its punches with a quietness that belies their force. If The Lost Daughter, another film about the complexities and contradictions of womanhood also shot by French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, is about women who say exactly what they mean, only for no one to understand them, then Never Rarely Sometimes Always centers two young girls who rarely communicate with each other, but share a instinctive bond.
The film, which follows 17-year-old Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) on a trip from small-town Pennsylvania to New York to get an abortion, accompanied by her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), is written in the secret shared language that all women speak. It's in the way they exchange quiet smiles, drawing on reserves of strength when they realise that another woman could use some, their knowing glances when they sense one of them is being put in an uncomfortable situation by men, and their wordless gestures of support. As the film progresses, it points out just how much this solidarity is crucial to survival in an otherwise uncaring world.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always feels observed rather than staged, a documentation of reality rather than its cinematic adaptation. Hittman's economy of storytelling is apparent right from the first scene, which nimbly establishes Autumn as a fish out of water and the feminine target of cruelty in a patriarchal world, but also someone brave enough to continue performing onstage after being heckled. The writer-director frames her lead in closeups, invested in the way she exists as opposed to acts, as the camera unflinchingly captures the devastation of a young woman finding out that she's going to be a mother before she's ready. Scenes in which Autumn initially attempts to induce an abortion herself are hard to watch, but they're the natural consequence of an environment that constantly threatens to stifle her thoughts and limit her options. A single shot of a state website that declares it illegal for minors to have an abortion unless their parents consent is effective in its ability to provoke distress. So is a scene in which a medical professional asks Autumn a series of deeply personal questions before her procedure. The teen's answers regarding sexual coercion and assault share a heartbreaking bit of symmetry with the lyrics of a song she performs at the beginning of the film — "He makes me do things I don't want to do, he makes me say things I don't want to say."
Hittman's ability to convey volumes with a single shot recurs through the film, particularly when a male co-passenger on the bus touches Skylar to get her attention. The film lingers on the way his hand is placed on her body, exuding his casual entitlement. All the men in these girls' lives are consistently awful — lecherous, demeaning and intrusive — and while their presence provokes anger, their behavior doesn't seem exaggerated in the least. They're not written as caricatures, but plucked from reality.