★★★★☆

In the years since Juno offered a light-hearted but even-handed take on the subject of unwanted teen pregnancy, the discourse around reproductive rights in America has, if anything, grown more polarised. Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a subtle, quietly devastating look at how a young woman’s body is constantly subject to outside pressures.

Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is seventeen and living with her family in small-town Pennsylvania. Along with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), she balances high school with working the check-out at a local supermarket. At work, they experience unwanted attention from older men, which is a sort of age-gap corollary for the thoughtless insults of their male peers in school. When Autumn discovers she is pregnant, she also discovers that state law prevents her from getting an abortion without parental consent. This forces her and Skylar to take a road trip into New York to visit a facility that can help her terminate the pregnancy whilst keeping it hidden from her family.

The exact reasons why Autumn doesn’t want her mother to find out about the pregnancy are carefully left vague. The script is extremely light-touch, relying more on insinuation and the subtleties of Flanigan and Ryder’s performances to help the audience fill in the blanks. This builds up to a powerful central scene, from which is derived the film’s title, where Autumn is required to answer some questions about her sexual history during her screening at Planned Parenthood. In response to questions about abuse and sexual coercion, she is able to answer: “Never, rarely, sometimes, always.”

To call the film understated is itself almost an understatement. Never Rarely Sometimes Always wears its lo-fi indie credentials front and centre, finding a realism in the two taciturn teenagers that feels largely authentic. At times, it’s hard not to wonder if a little more dialogue, a little more development of Autumn’s character or her relationships wouldn’t have provided some needed depth to the overall story. Yet, since this is a film determined not to sensationalise, desperate to show the everyday quality of what its two girls have to go through, it’s also an editorial decision that gives back what it takes away.

Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom

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