Sharon Van Etten has less than a handful of lines in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Appearing in only three short scenes, she plays the mother of the main character, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan). Eliza Hittman, the director, never shoots a close up of the musician’s face. Her singing voice, strained with hurt and violence and grace, doesn’t appear on the soundtrack until the closing credits, but it informs the atmosphere of the film. You can draw a straight line from Van Etten’s lyrics to Autumn’s state of mind, “Downtown harks back/I used to be on this street/I used to be seventeen.”
Hittman introduces Autumn at a high school talent night. She appears on stage playing guitar and singing with the animated, though untrained, vocal powers and prowess of someone like Van Etten or PJ Harvey. The small town Pennsylvania audience doesn’t know what to make of her. But Autumn is seventeen. She’s both nervy and nervous. One of her male classmates heckles her during the performance — momentarily throwing her rhythm off; she throws a drink in his face later that night at a restaurant.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always charts Autumn’s subsequent and sudden departure from home to New York City. The morning after her performance Autumn visits a local women’s clinic to take a pregnancy test. Once it’s confirmed that she’s 10 weeks along, the counselor there not-so-subtly suggests that she keep the baby. Autumn knows that she’s not ready to be a mother. Hittman, who also wrote the screenplay, avoids every available cliché associated with a teenage pregnancy story. The director maintains Autumn’s point of view in every scene. It’s her odyssey, and the trip’s ensuing obstacles, that we follow as she tries to obtain a legal abortion.
The camera moves in and stays close to Flanigan’s face. As Autumn, the actress resists easy emoting for the intrusive lens that’s always pointed directly at her. She often turns away from it, caught in profile, or angrily stares it down. Her eyes and her rigid posture are primed for a fight. Autumn may be verbally inexpressive but she does communicate one thought effectively. She wants to have dominion over her own body and can’t rely on the state, or her parents, to help her. In fact, it’s the state (and the bureaucrats who run it) that becomes her primary antagonist.
Hittman’s vision for the movie is worlds away from the verbal dynamics that light up Diablo Cody’s Juno (2007). Autumn’s also poorer than either Ellen Page’s pregnant teen or Jenny Slate’s young adult character in Obvious Child, an abortion-themed movie from 2014. The director adjusts the tone of her story so that it reflects the realities of Autumn’s lower economic status. By doing so, Hittman achieves the immediacy of a documentary.
She films domestic scenes and public spaces in the way that people actually live in and walk through them. Nothing looks staged or artificial. And yet Hittman’s lighting — with cinematography by Hélène Louvart — pacing, and camera angles are taut and lyrical. The director’s style here reminded me of Lynne Ramsay’s careful study of Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar and the Dardenne Brothers’ heroines in the films Rosetta and Two Days, One Night.
For the first hour of the film, Flanigan shows us Autumn’s determination. After her visit to the clinic, to emotionally prepare herself for the abortion, she pierces her own nose. She doesn’t wince, flinch or cry as the blood flows down her face. At the local grocery store where she works with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), both girls have coolly adjusted to the manager’s daily sexual advances. And in her own family’s living room, we listen in, appalled, as her stepfather strokes the family cat while calling it a “slut.”
At one of her lowest points in the film, when she runs out of money, Autumn calls her mother. Seeking comfort, she listens to her voice, and, without saying a word, hangs up in despair. Hittman implies but doesn’t tell us that her stepfather’s raped her. She shows us a teenager in trouble who can’t ask her mother for help. Never Rarely could have been a routine coming-of-age film depicting one adolescent’s rite of passage into adulthood. In a standard melodrama, all of the facts would have come spilling out in confessional or confrontational scenes.
Instead, the director amplifies Van Etten’s anti-nostalgic aesthetic. In “Seventeen,” the woman singing the song is older, looking back at a particular moment. She is and is not longing to revisit her past. Never Rarely Sometimes Always summons up that internal conflict. The movie is a lived-in experience, the unsentimental recollection of a girl who loses her innocence and realizes that she won’t get it back. Autumn fights for her own self-possession and wins but it comes at a cost.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is now streaming online.