The misogyny that makes the film’s premise possible is shown to be a pervasive mire that Autumn is constantly swimming in. The aforementioned boy’s outbursts and harrassment go unremarked upon by anyone. Her and Skylar’s job as a grocery store cashier is a regular source of unwanted propositions by much older men, and every shift ends with the disgusting ritual of their manager kissing their hands as they turn in their register cash. The only male figure in Autumn’s home, which she shares with her mother and younger sisters, is her mother’s boyfriend, a sour and leering figure who darkens the home with his mere presence. Things are no better in New York City as they flee from masturbating finance bros in the subway and are forced to decide if the forward guy they met on the incoming bus is harmless or not despite his clear interest in two underage girls. The film takes its title from a questionnaire provided by the Planned Parenthood counselor, likely transcribed verbatim by Hittman, that asks Autumn about her sexual history and any abuse associated with it. After marinating in this poisonous soup for her whole life, it’s both devastating and unsurprising when Autumn implies but can’t speak aloud how much she’s been subjected to in her young life.
Hittman does a good job of showing the world that Autumn’s grown up in, but her film has a harder time with the passage of time in what wants to be a catalog of inconveniences and roadblocks. Compared to something like the accretion of damning detail in the similarly-themed and higher-staked Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, Never Rarely Sometimes Always doesn’t have the same commitment to immediate problem solving. Autumn and Skylar are forced to spend days in New York City and are confronted with conundrums as elemental as where are they going to sleep or how long until the excuses they left with their respective families become untenable. These problems are remedied by a cut to daylight, or are ignored.
What makes Never Rarely Sometimes Always the most like Hittman’s previous films is a near-total inability of her protagonists to communicate or ask for help. There’s no scene of Autumn asking Skylar to come with her; Skylar just does so. The Planned Parenthood counselor offers lodging to Autumn but she refuses, and a call to her mother is shut down before anything meaningful can be said. This was heartbreaking in It Felt Like Love, and complicated by a swirl of circumstance and repression in Beach Rats. Here, it’s almost an empathy test, as Autumn and Skylar don’t have much of a rapport and don’t really speak to each other either. Skylar is played openly by Ryder and wants to know what Autumn is going through, as does the counselor, both serving as fonts of vulnerability that weren’t present at all in Hittman’s earlier films. Autumn’s refusal to engage is tough to watch in a film that’s already not an easy sit.
With its lived-in setting and naturalistic performances, Never Rarely Sometimes Always has the feel of authenticity even as it functions as a film lacking in dramatic tension. Backed by Planned Parenthood from the writing process to allowing its facilities to be used for sets, the film isn’t complicated by the decisions of its characters. It’s never in doubt that this is the best choice for Autumn, and no one but the crisis pregnancy hacks suggest otherwise. This is a work of ‘how’ and not ‘why,’ something like a well-written magazine article that grounds a social ill in a single person’s experience. That’s a reasonable way into any good story, but Hittman’s choice to elide certain details betrays what’s otherwise a dedication to linear storytelling. I prefer her work when her characters make bad decisions, as opposed to when they are externally thwarted from making good ones. C+