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FILMS / REVIEWS USA / UK

Review: Never Rarely Sometimes Always

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- The Berlin and Sundance award winner by Eliza Hittman is a loving tale of young female friendship that isn't afraid to tackle big themes

Review: Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always

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, the third film by Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats), won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale and the Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival. The film tackles the political and socially divisive issue of abortion in America through a melancholic, inspired and emotional coming-of-age tale. Co-produced by the BBC, the movie will have a digital premiere in the UK on 13 May.

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America is seen through the eyes of Autumn Callahan (a terrific Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old student who falls pregnant in Pennsylvania. Jumping straight onto the internet, Autumn discovers that under-18s who wish to have an abortion in the state of Pennsylvania require the informed consent of a parent. Through judicious observation and heartbreaking storytelling, Hittman shows how the laws and some medical practitioners combine to pressure young girls into having babies they would rather not. Autumn may be reserved and quiet, but she knows her own mind, and she wants to have an abortion, without needing to tell her parents. The reason why she's worried about their reaction needs little explaining for anyone who has lived through teenage angst (so everyone over 20, then): what would they say? Would their reaction – potential disappointment – make it into a bigger issue than it is already for Autumn? Is it even any of their business when she's 17? Whose decision is it anyway?

It's not Autumn's, according to the law – and many other people. A medical practice that seems to have been set up to help young girls instead plays pregnant teens anti-abortion videos. Hittman cuts away from the informational video as it gets played, showing what happens without giving the anti-abortion rhetoric a platform in her movie.

Showing how hard it is for Autumn to get an abortion without making it a big-issue movie takes some guile and storytelling prowess. At first, Autumn is isolated. She doesn't want to involve or tell the impregnator, and Hittman throws us an early MacGuffin by giving the audience some potential leads about who slept with Autumn. But this is not that story, and not their story.

The tale takes off, both literally and metaphorically, when Autumn's friend and cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), discovers what is making Autumn act out, and immediately sets about helping her. They journey to New York City, where Autumn will be able to get an abortion with fewer questions asked. Skylar is also used to show what teenage life without falling pregnant is like, and it's also a road with many traffic lights. The big menace and steep terrain to navigate is the opposite sex. They meet a fellow teenager, Jaspar (Theodore Pellerin), on the bus to New York, but is he friend or foe? It's impossible to know, and without making him do anything unexpected of a young man, Hittman renders him as potentially threatening as a supervillain.

Sundance singled out the neo-realist aspect of the storytelling when awarding the prize. The camera feels almost documentary-like throughout, but the more significant element of realism is that Never Rarely Sometimes Always always feels truthful and transports us into Autumn's headspace. It’s a stand-out coming-of-age film.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a US-UK co-production staged by NBC Universal, Focus Features, Pastel and BBC Films.

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