Never Rarely Sometimes Always review: An electrifying, Oscar-worthy drama

When friends recommend a “difficult” movie I sometimes/rarely/never watch it. Life’s too short. Luckily, Eliza Hittman, the director of this prize-winning abortion drama, knows audiences don’t want to be lectured. Her film, in its own way, is as romantic and laugh-out-loud funny as Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise.

As the young characters wander through New York, at night, all night (they’ve got nowhere to sleep), they meet a pugnacious chicken and endure a hilariously misguided rendition of Wishing by A Flock of Seagulls. I’m not trying to downplay the emotional stuff. But there’s a fine line between gruelling and gripping and Hittman is always on the right side of it.

Autumn, 17, (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) lives with her blue-collar mum (Sharon Van Etten; blazingly warm) and stepfather (Ryan Eggold; electrifyingly aggressive). In Pennsylvania, teens need parental consent in order to terminate a pregnancy, and it’s only when Autumn and her bubbly cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) go to a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Big Apple that we realise the direness of the situation.

It’s strongly hinted that Autumn has been having sex with two different people. Which one of them got Autumn pregnant? That’s the wrong question. In a one-take scene, she’s asked about her relationship history. Normally granite-faced, Autumn begins to sob.

Flanigan’s performance is flabbergasting and, at the very least, should snag her an Oscar nomination. Obviously, she’s not a “name”, but that may not matter. The film was partly financed by BBC Films, whose head, Rose Garnett, developed and executive-produced Room, Three Billboards, The Favourite and Judy (four female-centric films that went on to earn best actress prizes for their leads). When Garnett has your back, good things happen.

If Flanigan — or, indeed, the film itself — gets honoured by the Academy, expect US conservatives to go berserk. During an ultrasound test, we can see and hear that the foetus is healthy. Hittman is part of a new wave of unapologetic feminists, and that Never Rarely Sometimes Always managed to secure a PG-13 rating in the US (softer, ironically, than the UK rating) says a lot about the current cultural landscape. For pro-choice American liberals, this is the best and worst of times.

In case you’re wondering, what makes the film romantic is the love that exists between Autumn and Skylar. They’re so different (Skylar’s conventionally cute face is as squishy as a marshmallow). But they feel as one. Cinefiles will appreciate the visceral close-ups, lit and framed by Hélène Louvart.

Young girls will probably like the fact that Autumn can sing. She adds a folky gothic spin to two Sixties anthems: He’s Got the Power, originally performed by girl group The Exciters, and Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying, by Louise Cordet, all in their late teens when they made those records.

It’s weirdly satisfying to watch a modern teen howl words sung by long-ago adolescents. Girls were up against it then. They’re up against it now. But you can’t keep a good voice down. Autumn’s, I suspect, will be ringing in my ears forever.

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