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In 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always,' A Teenager With A Choice

Mar 13, 2020
Originally published on March 13, 2020 8:05 pm
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A new film takes its title from the choice of responses a character is offered during an interview. She's asked, does something happen never, rarely, sometimes, always? Critic Bob Mondello says her answers in the film "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" offer a window into her frame of mind and a good deal more.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Seventeen-year-old Autumn often makes choices that are not in her best interest, but she's trying hard to get this one right. Worried that she might be pregnant, she goes to a local women's clinic in her west Pennsylvania town and is startled to be offered exactly the test she could have bought at the drugstore. The clinic's receptionist tells her, inaccurately, that if the test result is negative, she shouldn't trust it. Then they do the test.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) That looks like a positive.

SIDNEY FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) If it's positive, is there any way it could be negative?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No. The positive is always a positive.

MONDELLO: The clinic's nurse then administers an ultrasound.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) This is the most magical sound you will ever hear.

MONDELLO: And before letting her go, the receptionist shows her a graphic abortion-is-murder video. Autumn regards most of this as less than helpful. I'm just not ready to be a mom, she says. She's also not ready to tell people about her situation, though her slightly older cousin Skylar senses that something's going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS")

TALIA RYDER: (As Skylar) So you weren't at school today.

FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) I went to the doctor.

RYDER: (As Skylar) Are you OK?

FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) Yeah, I'm fine.

RYDER: (As Skylar) What's wrong?

FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) Girl problems.

RYDER: (As Skylar) Bad cramps?

FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) Yeah.

RYDER: (As Skylar) I get those, too - pretty much run through a bottle of painkillers like every month.

FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) Yeah, same.

RYDER: (As Skylar) Don't you ever just wish you were a dude?

FLANIGAN: (As Autumn) All the time.

MONDELLO: When Autumn finally spills the beans, Skylar packs a suitcase, and the two head for New York City, where Pennsylvania's parental consent laws regarding abortion won't apply. They assume the procedure will just take one day, but things prove more complicated. Director Eliza Hittman, whose haunting coming-out drama "Beach Rats" also dealt with sex and a teen in crisis, has first-time actress Sidney Flanigan create the main character almost without dialogue.

Autumn is moody to the point of being sullen. And when she's occasionally pressed to reveal something about herself, she quickly pulls back defensively into her shell, which makes the moments when she lets down her guard pack tremendous punch. "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" has an intimate, realistic, almost documentary feel, even as it finds drama and, surprisingly, humor in situations these two young women confront - Skylar's wary conversation, say, with a guy on the bus to Manhattan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You going to New York?

RYDER: (As Skylar) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Freaking love New York. It's kind of my favorite city.

RYDER: (As Skylar) Yeah, us, too.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) New York, like, I think because of the way the city's set up and everything, you're forced to interact with people who are just nothing like you.

RYDER: (As Skylar) Kind of like this bus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) That's funny.

MONDELLO: That seemingly innocent encounters with men can lead to compromising situations is something Skylar and Autumn know all too well. And the director fills their trip with moments that test them in other ways - unexpected expenses, frayed nerves, Autumn's tendency to shrink even from those who are trying to help, all of which makes "Never Rarely Sometimes Always" arresting indie filmmaking and turns what might in other hands have been a treatise on reproductive rights into a generous, affirmative portrait of female friendship and solidarity, a film that is never preachy, rarely in any way judgmental, sometimes raw and always filled with hope.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.