Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is the kind of mindful, moody 17-year-old who keeps her feelings locked away for fear they’ll be bruised. Understandably so; in the opening sequence of the quietly devastating drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Autumn is catcalled off the stage of a high school talent show while playing a spectral acoustic version of the old girl group hit “He’s Got the Power.” Aside from her best friend and cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), no one gets her: not the boys who mock her at school and in local diners, not her angry, dismissive stepfather (Ryan Eggold), not even her wearily sympathetic mother (singer Sharon Van Etten).
But someone got her, somewhere, for Autumn is pregnant. The movie, the third feature from writer/director Eliza Hittman, understands this to be a calamity on any number of levels. The setting is rural Pennsylvania, where the only women’s “health clinic” within miles peddles anti-abortion pamphlets and videos. Autumn has just two friends, really — Google, which gives her the location of a real clinic in New York City and a bus schedule to get her there; and Skylar, who silently intuits her friend’s predicament and joins her on the journey.
So “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a road-trip movie, but with the stakes high and the hi-jinks non-existent. The film shares with the recent “The Assistant” a profoundly empathetic interest in the inner lives of beleaguered young women and a scrupulously realistic filmmaking style, one that trades melodrama for something more observational and, ultimately, far more powerful.
(A theatrical release for this Sundance special jury prizewinner has been canceled due to because of the coronavirus; instead Focus Features is making “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” available on participating on-demand services for $19.99.)
The early scenes, including a sequence at Autumn and Skylar’s supermarket checkout job, draw a portrait of a ground-down Middle America where the men believe they’re hot stuff and the women are just exhausted. Hittman is attuned to the micro-predations of a teenage girl’s daily life, even as Skylar and Autumn tune them out — the grabby shift supervisor, the beer-buying customer in his 50s who invites them to “party.” The camera hovers in close to the girls’ faces as they express nothing, reveal nothing. They’re used to this.
The trek to the city, beginning in the early morning hours, unfolds largely in silence, Autumn lost in her thoughts and Skylar offering invisible support. Director Hittman has said in interviews that she made ”Never Rarely Sometimes Always” partly in response to the 2007 Romanian film “4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days,” in particular its portrait of a self-absorbed pregnant woman and her saintly best friend. Hittman says she felt the earlier movie needed correcting, and while others might argue the point — “4 Months” is generally considered one of the great films of the new century — the tacit heroism of both women in “Never,” their strength and forbearance, are intensely moving.
There are hiccups in the plan once the two arrive in New York, including forced overnight stays with no chance of a hotel. Hittman glances only sideways at the wee-hour lives of people who sleep in public waiting rooms and subway cars because there’s nowhere else to go, but an entire world is in those glances. At the same time, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” shows a network of women dedicated to helping other women and providing an understanding that for Autumn is both welcome and something of a shock. She knew it was out there but never quite trusted herself to believe in it.
There are no men in this part of the film except for Jasper (Théodore Pellerin) a gawky, self-confident college boy the two meet on the bus. Ignoring Autumn, he hits on Skylar, inviting the women to a dance club and later turning up in what he probably believes is the role of protector. He’s the quintessential “nice guy.” The women in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” have met nice guys before, and they know how that usually goes.
They’ve met worse as well. The pivot point in Hittman’s movie — the moment in which Autumn’s composure cracks and we sense the extent of her damage — comes in the scene that provides “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” with its title. I’ll say no more than that, other than to point out that the language of bureaucracy can sometimes open up the doors to truth and that the performance of Flanigan, a first-time actress, is both harrowing and possessed of an eloquence that has no need for words. You come away from this movie weeping for the Autumns of this world but also awed by their endurance.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.