Never Rarely Sometimes Always ★★★★★

I am not very fond of hyperbole. I try my level best to rationalize my opinions, but I have to say the following: if you’re going to watch just one film this year, make it this one. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is head and shoulders above anything else released this year and quite frankly it might just become one of the most important films in recent memory.

From the very opening frame Eliza Hittman, who wrote and directed it, jabs the viewer with pivotal nuance that, while insignificant initially, over time builds up to a deafening thematic roar. We meet Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), the protagonist, as she is about to perform at a school talent show. Hidden behind an acoustic guitar, she sings a cover of The Exciters “He’s Got The Power!” with a lyrically angelic voice:

He makes me do things I don’t want to do
He Makes me say things I don’t want to say
And though I want to break away
I can’t stop saying I adore him
I can’t stop doing things for him
He’s got the power of
Power of love over me

And then someone in the audience, a teenage boy no less, yells ‘Slut!’, thus throwing Autumn off her rhythm. But she composes herself and continues. None of what happens in this scene is incidental or otherwise unimportant. Between the lyrics of the song, Autumn’s sheepish demeanour and the rude heckle from an audience member, this is all supposed to plant the thematic seeds for the narrative to grow from and inform the viewer they are not watching a bog standard coming-of-age story about teenage girls with teenage problems, but rather a potent rumination on the state of our civilization as a whole. This is because – contrary to what a plot synopsis might suggest - Never Rarely Sometimes Always isn’t merely a drama about a young woman dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, but rather a scathing indictment of a culture of systemic oppression and sexual objectification of women. Everything you need to clue into this theme is contained within this short little opening scene. Autumn walks out on stage with a song she decided to sing in front of the entire school and her own parents and it is not a coincidence that she sings about an abusive relationship. Unbeknownst to everyone, including the viewer, Autumn is confessing. This is her cry for help that nobody seems to pick up on. Hypothetically speaking, if she killed herself later on that night, some people would probably be very surprised and maybe admit she was quiet but didn’t give anyone a sign she was in trouble. But she did. And nobody listened. Nobody cared.

This is what this movie is really about: a young woman who is all alone in the world. When she finds out she is pregnant, she is equally alone in her predicament as well. And Hittman captures the horror of this predicament with a combination of impeccable restraint and observational skill that somehow balances the intimacy needed for the viewer to be invested in the story with a clinical detachment borrowed from Bergman and Kieslowski. Methodically and patiently she goes on to weave a story about desperation, helplessness and tired exasperation at the fact that for Autumn – and for many other girls who can see some aspects of their own life experiences reflected in what Autumn goes through – life is not a pursuit of happiness, but rather a never-ending escape from a limitless labyrinth of misery. Misery inflicted by men, their gaze, their lewd remarks, their degrading behaviour, their domineering desires and an entire societal make-up that not only allows that but seemingly endorses it openly.

Hittman doesn’t lay out her thesis right away in this regard, nor does she beat the viewer over the head with her righteous wrath. In fact, she leaves a lot of dot-connecting to the audience by not spelling anything out; by showing and not telling. She never writes a line of dialogue where Autumn’s struggle would be clearly explained, but instead she opts to leave it in the sphere of nuance and allow the images to speak for themselves. This culminates perfectly in the ‘titular’ scene where Autumn is interviewed by a woman at the abortion clinic who asks her a series of questions about her sexual experiences to which Autumn has to apply one of the four answers: never, rarely, sometimes, or always. In what could only be a stroke of genius, Hittman decides to play this scene almost entirely on Autumn’s face. We get to hear the other woman ask the questions and engage her, but all we can see is Autumn’s face. And what we end up privy to is a process of her shedding the cold mask of indifference she dons every day to avoid being noticed in the crowd. She goes on answering questions and reveals to us that her short life on this planet has been marred by nothing but constant sexual objectification, degradation and downright abuse. This is where we are supposed to think back to the opening scene where she is called a slut on stage and appreciate the proportions of the horror we are actually witnessing.

What is more, Hittman doesn’t stop there. She presses on just in case we didn’t comprehend the complete picture of this tragedy and presents us with another horrifying scene where Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) have to spend a night in New York and end up reaching out to a boy they met on the bus. Lo and behold, the boy who looked completely innocent and harmless turns into a vicious predator the minute he figures out the girls are vulnerable. They need his money and his assistance so he easily ends up coercing Skylar to sell her body in exchange for his help, thus completing Hittman’s thesis.

I promised myself I wouldn’t try to compare this film to anything else and let it stand on its own merit (and I almost managed, I believe), but I feel I need to break my promise to underscore the horror this movie conjures. Pound for pound, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is scarier than Hereditary, The Witch and The Exorcist. That’s purely because its horror is not manufactured out of outlandish nightmares, but rather of casual human evil destroying lives of innocent girls. Little by little and one by one. It is a magnificent account that fits perfectly as one of the leading voices of modern feminist cinema. It is an angry film, no doubt about it, but it is this honest fury which makes the film such an outstanding masterpiece that should be watched by everyone and hence never ever forgotten. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a stomach-churning and heart-breaking cinematic purgatory and a work of pure perfection.

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