“I used to be free, I used to be 17″ are lyrics from Sharon Van Etten’s track “Seventeen”, used in the trailer for Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and the words will echo in the minds of audiences long after the end credits roll. It’s perhaps the most important American coming-of-age film in years, as we follow a 17-year-old from Pennsylvania called Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) as she sets out to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. After premiering at Sundance in January 2020, it went on to win the ‘Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize’ at Berlin and is now available to stream.
We’re introduced to Autumn during a school talent show. A quiet and reserved girl, the film’s opening is one of the few moments where she’s at her most raw—singing to a cover of The Exciter’s “He’s Got The Power”. It’s a tender moment (with moving lyrics such as “he makes me do things I don’t want to do”), right up until a boy in the crowd shouts out calling her a slut. But Autumn bravely carries on, laying the foundations for her struggle against the seen and unseen aspects of societally embedded patriarchy.
When Autumn suspects she might be pregnant, she visits a crisis pregnancy centre. After testing positive she asks about the possibility of getting an abortion and, due to state law, realises she can’t get one in Pennsylvania without parental consent. The nurse consequently talks instead about adoption and plays an anti-abortion campaign video. While on shift at a local supermarket, Autumn confides in her cousin Skylar, who decided to steal money from their creepy store manager to fund a bus trip to New York City… where parental consent isn’t necessary to end a pregnancy.
The invasive hands of the patriarchy are felt around every corner of Never Rarely Sometimes Always; whether its the distant legislators who decide what women can and can’t do with their own bodies, or the persistence of the socially unaware boy she meets on the bus, Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), who wants to take them for a night out despite their lack of interest and attempts to rebuff him. But things aren’t straightforward once they arrive in New York. The procedure takes two days, and so they must form an uneasy relationship with Jasper, their only contact in the big city, in order to get by.
Despite the challenges they face, it’s Autumn and Skylar’s tight friendship which sees them through. A lot can be interpreted from what isn’t said and Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t waste one moment. From the sparse moments of peace Autumn and Skylar find in the waiting rooms of train stations and the clinics, to spending their nights playing in arcades and aimlessly riding the city subway, it’s ultimately the pair’s solid (albeit sometimes silent) sisterly bond which offers the glimmer of hope that will get them home.
Although the film may be grappling with a deeply divisive contemporary political issue, it never feels didactic. Similar to The Assistant (2020), it’s a truthful fictional account based on countless real-life stories. But the film’s authenticity should come as no surprise when one looks at the work director Eliza Hittman put into pre-production. After initially being motivated by the story of an Irish woman having to travel to London for an abortion, Hittman carried out huge amounts of research and fieldwork by meeting with doctors and Planned Parenthood workers, working their stories and experiences into her script.
Eliza Hittman is no stranger to coming-of-age films, having also written and directed It Felt Like Love (2014) and Beach Rats (2017), the latter of which won her the Sundance ‘Directing’ award. But Never Rarely Sometimes Always is without a doubt her most accomplished and important film to date, bolstered by an excellent central performance from confident movie first-timer Sidney Flanigan, and a dreamily emotional soundtrack by Sharon Van Etten (who appears as Autumn’s mum).
Now the Academy will be accepting films released straight to streaming for next year’s awards ceremony, this could be a serious contender.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Eliza Hittman.
starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold & Sharon Van Etten.