Sidney Flanigan Delivers a Powerful Performance in this Heartbreaking Drama

by Hassan Ilahi

The trials and tribulations endured by teenagers that terminate pregnancies are candidly captured in Eliza Hittman’s latest film Never Rarely Sometimes Always. An intimate, heartbreaking and sensitive drama, it raises awareness for women’s reproductive rights in America. With her third feature, writer/director Eliza Hittman captures teen abortion from the female gaze. Packed with lavish cinematography, subtle storytelling and strong acting, it is one of 2020’s best films. Although Never Rarely Sometimes Always is undeniably moving, ultimately it isn’t a flawless film. It builds to an abrupt ending that incites questions. Nonetheless, it offers meaningful entertainment that will satisfy fans of art-house Cinema.

Set in rural Pennsylvania, Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows two teenage girls that traverse through state lines to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Sidney Flanigan stars in the leading role as Autumn Callaghan, a taciturn adolescent that is alarmed when she becomes pregnant. Due to her state’s restrictions, Autumn travels to New York with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to seek abortion. However, what starts as a simple journey soon becomes fraught with setbacks. As Autumn is denied medical assistance, she yearns for sexual autonomy.

Writer/director Eliza Hittman is well-versed in themes of adolescent identity. Ever since she gained worldwide recognition with Beach Rats in 2017, Hittman has proven to be an outstanding female filmmaker. Her films are often characterized by the Cinéma Vérité style, utilizing handheld camerawork to document experiences of adolescents. With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, however, Hittman has crafted her first feminist pregnancy drama. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to humanize the hardships experienced by adolescent girls that seek abortions in the U.S., but she pulls it off successfully. Using captivating cinematography, Hittman draws viewers into the lives of teenage girls that pursue abortion access in a country with restrictive laws. Working alongside cinematographer Hèlène Louvart, Hittman seamlessly utilizes handheld cinematography to convey struggles faced by pregnant teenagers. It lends realism and authenticity to the film, making it feel like a documentary rather than fictional work. Hittman excels at humanizing abortion, and her latest feature is worth watching for this reason alone.

If accounts of adolescents that extinguish pregnancies do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Hittman’s decision to shoot the film in continuous takes is risky, but it works tremendously. Hittman excels at utilizing long takes to create empathy for an adolescent that ends pregnancy. For example, long takes are utilized exceptionally well in the sequence where Autumn breaks down in anxiety in response to upsetting multiple-choice questions. Like a fly on the wall, the camera simply observes Autumn’s sad face as she has an emotional nervous breakdown. Using this observational style, Hittman creates compassion for Autumn’s choice to attain abortion. Furthermore, Julia Holter’s classical score is also worth mentioning. It gives the movie an anxiety-inducing and suspenseful atmosphere reminiscent of the Dardenne Brothers. Through phenomenal production values, Hittman keeps viewers engaged in a teenager’s sexual journey.

Another extraordinary aspect of Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the screenplay. Hittman’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is her knack for creating an empathetic portrait of teen pregnancy using minimal dialogue. In Hollywood, most films about abortion are driven by political agendas and often condemn women that abandon pregnancies. This anti-abortion viewpoint leaves little room for emotional investment and creates stigma around the subject. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Hittman wisely resists taking a political stance either for or against abortion. Instead, she approaches the subject from the non-judgemental perspective of a documentarian. Hittman skillfully uses sequences of silence to convey the unspoken bond between teenage girls that support each others’ decisions. Through this subtle storytelling, Hittman creates compelling female characters whom viewers can easily sympathize with. Minimal dialogue is a tricky technique to utilize effectively in dramas. However, it works immensely in this film. Using an understated screenplay, Hittman keeps viewers absorbed in a world of female camaraderie.

It’s hard to not admire astonishing performances from the cast. Hittman’s decision to cast non-professional teens works wonderfully.

Sidney Flanigan delivers a dazzling debut performance as Autumn Callaghan. In her first ever leading role, Flanigan proves to be a talented actress with flair for playing tormented adolescents. It is not easy to get into the mindset of a traumatized teenager that seeks to finish her pregnancy. It’s an emotionally draining role that requires the actress to communicate palpable emotions with minimal dialogue. However, Flanigan pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, she captures the grief, loneliness and perseverance of an adolescent that seeks sexual autonomy in a prejudiced country. Although Flanigan isn’t well-known, this standout performance will surely gain her well-deserved recognition.

Talia Ryder is terrific in the role of a concerned adolescent that puts her life on hold to support her cousin’s controversial choice. While Flanigan gets the showier role, Ryder is equally excellent and deserving of awards recognition. As Skylar, Ryder showcases an aptitude for communicating an unspoken bond through non-verbal body language. Whether she is gently holding Autumn’s hands in an uncomfortable situation or exchanging glances of moral support, Ryder masterfully uses non-verbal gestures to convey Skylar’s affection for her cousin. It’s a breakthrough performance that proves Ryder is destined for future stardom.

Despite its marvelous performances, however, it’s unfortunate that Never Rarely Sometimes Always sometimes avoids addressing the provocative questions posed by its multiple-choice title. Hittman’s decision to conclude the movie without confronting abortion’s consequences is bold and unexpected, but it doesn’t entirely work. It’s an abrupt finale that raises questions regarding characters’ fates. Whereas this ambiguous conclusion worked in a film like Revolutionary Road, it clashes with the balanced depiction of abortion in this movie. Moreover, the movie may not satisfy everyone. The movie discusses controversial topics such as depression, mental health and sexual trauma that will disturb certain audiences. Viewers with conservative anti-abortion views won’t appreciate the movie. Due to its contentious subject, Never Rarely Sometimes Always won’t please mainstream audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of indie dramas will certainly enjoy Never Rarely Sometimes Always and so will movie-goers seeking heartfelt entertainment. A fantastic piece of feminist filmmaking, it aims to transform the public’s understanding of abortion. It’s not fair for women to bear the brunt to access services in a country that has never granted them reproductive rights it has always promised it will.

Hassan’s Grade:  A-