April 3, 2020

Ryan Bordow

Review: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ lingers in the mind

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

If there’s any proof that some karmic force is out there keeping the universe balanced, it’s that Never Rarely Sometimes Always—a quiet, realistic indie about a teenager’s abortion—finished production the same month that Unplanned was released. Unplanned, a pro-life propaganda piece, had little interest in actual human experience: the opening scene depicts a 13-week-old fetus fighting off surgical tools in the womb, clawing its way up the uterine wall in a desperate bid to save itself. Any ob-gyn can tell you that fetuses don’t have the neurologic capacity to feel pain (or thrash around in fear) at 13 weeks, but you know, whatever gets the point across. As the yin to Unplanned’s yang, Never Rarely Sometimes Always isn’t fixated on scoring political points; instead, it’s focused on a person.

That person is Autumn, a high school outcast with an unsupportive family and an unplanned pregnancy. After a pregnancy center in her hometown lies to her about the services they offer—a deception that’s encouraged in real life by anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson, who wrote the book that Unplanned is based on—Autumn and her cousin abscond to New York to terminate her pregnancy. Funded by stolen money and transported by Greyhound, the two leave town with nary a word between them, silently accepting the lengths they have to go to.

Their resignation to this pilgrimage for rights is written on their faces—defeated but determined looks, unspoken gratitude and invisible burden. Where Unplanned approached abortion through the lens of sensationalism, Never Rarely Sometimes Always does so through sensory details, capturing how unwanted pregnancy feels to Autumn. Nowhere is the difference in approaches starker than in the movies’ first scenes. Unplanned kicks off with its scientifically dubious horror show; Never Rarely Sometimes Always starts with a high school talent show, staring into Autumn’s eyes as she’s interrupted by a slut-shaming heckler. The perspective shifts, and with it the debate: unknowable as the personhood of the fetus might be, the humanness of the mother is undeniable, and her need to be known on an existential level is the right most ignored.

The film locks into this prioritization of the experiential and never leaves. A plot structure with buildups and climaxes would give some moments more weight than others, and for a movie this naturalistic, that would border on sensationalism. Conversely, every roadblock to Autumn’s one goal is presented as equally insurmountable, yet each one is surmounted compulsorily and without reservation. By taking its conflicts seriously but knocking them down methodically—tuning into Autumn’s muted reactions all the while—Never Rarely Sometimes Always captures the quotidian nature of the abortion issue: when it’s not being argued in extremes, it’s just another part of a difficult life. This channel of thought demystifies the topic without descending into polemic. It’s not a response to movies like Unplanned; it’s a gentle, frustrated sigh, asking that we know what we’re yelling about before we stake our ideologies on it.

As the movie progresses, its empirical scope widens past abortion, gazing into the small, interpersonal ways that men dehumanize women. These moments would be haunting in a vacuum, but amid the banal evils that are presented on a systemic level, they can’t help but feel like digressions. The tone and message are kept consistent—to Autumn and her cousin, harassment feels like a typical Tuesday—but because Never Rarely Sometimes Always minimizes the drama of abortion so well, landing another topic with a more palpable thud would’ve been welcome. When two societal ills are simultaneously examined through the lens of their mundanity, the film starts to feel a bit—well, mundane. Never Rarely Sometimes Always feels longer than its 100 minutes, but Sidney Flanigan’s performance is nevertheless an emotional anchor, especially during the scene from which the movie takes its title.

Even at its weakest, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is leaps and bounds above political point-scoring. Yes, the dregs of Autumn’s predicament begin to drag, but an overall impression lingers in the mind like a dream in someone else’s shoes. It’s a modest impression, given the subject matter—but that’s what brings balance.

★★★½   (3.5/5)