Content Warning: Sexual assault, discussion of abortion.
Late into Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always protagonist Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) stares into a bathroom mirror at a bowling alley, completely lost. She and her cousin Skyler (Talia Ryder) are stranded in New York City with no money to get home. They have no place to sleep and Autumn is still carrying the foetus she wants nothing more than to be rid of. The distorted noise of a forgotten 2000s pop record echoes through the walls reminding her that she can’t stay in there forever. Soon she will have to leave and face the world again. She is paralysed by fear, unable to move.
It is a moment most will recognise, perhaps not in experience but certainly in tone and mood, conjuring up ‘hypnagogic’ edits of popular songs meant to mimic the sound of faraway and distorted music from liminal realms like ‘the bathroom of a house party,’ or an abandoned mall. The term ‘hypnagogic’ is in reference to the psychological state between wakefulness and sleep, a surreal transitory period best known as the point where sleep paralysis can occur, and one of the few states that best describes the world of Never Rarely. Nothing is certain, and nothing is solid. Autumn drifts from location to location knowing only that her body is a ticking clock. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is at once a hyperrealist storey about a woman seeking an abortion, and at the same time a surrealist fairy tale about a young girl trapped in nightmare, beset by monsters on every side. The strength and the horror of this analogy rests in knowing that like a hypnagogic or liminal state, the boundary between these two readings is porous, and for many of the United States’ most vulnerable, one in the same.
Liminal spaces become such through their relationship with time and space. They are transient and passed through without a second thought, never meant to be inhabited for long periods of time. Often bureaucratic or corporate, liminal spaces are meant to be anywhere and nowhere at the same time. Through being both recognisable and foreign, they become uncanny. Any discussion of these spaces would be incomplete without a mention of David Lynch, who famously uses liminality in his work to create unsettling and fragmented replications of American identity. Like Twin Peaks, Never Rarely is a film in which the trauma and abuse of a teenage girl unsettles the world on a metaphysical level. Perhaps circumstantially, the talent show which opens Never Rarely also bears a strange resemblance to the Jitterbug contest at the beginning of Mulholland Drive. Both films present fractured portraits of American nostalgia, and actively work to remove as much information as possible, placing the viewer in the same unsettled state as their protagonists.
Never Rarely achieves this effect largely through forgoing contextual information and aligning the audience with Autumn and her experiences. The camera’s gaze is near universally locked onto her, and the rest of the camerawork follows suit. There are few establishing shots in the film. Instead, scenes drift in and out, resembling her depersonalisation and teenage ennui. The only connective tissue between these scattered moments is Autumn herself. She seems simply to find herself in places without quite knowing why, shuffled from one bureaucratic node to the next through the seemingly endless bus terminals, train cars, and waiting rooms that dominate Never Rarely’s NYC. The audience is trapped with her, lost in an emotional and physical limbo of long empty hallways and arcade bathrooms without any bearing, isolation and disorientation projected onto the world around her.
The handheld camera acts not merely as a way to align the viewer with Autumn, but also as a way to demonstrate how vulnerable she is and how pervasive the male gaze is. One particularly jarring example comes when Autumn makes eye contact with a drunk man on the subway staring at her. As the man reaches into the fly of his pants, the screen shakes both because of the jittering train car and as a result of Autumn’s panicked state. A more subtle example comes with the introduction of Jasper (Theodore Pellerin), the closest thing Never Rarely has to a primary antagonist. As Autumn and Skyler sit together on the bus they face out the window, away from the camera. This shot is held for far too long before Jasper introduces himself from off-screen. The film then cuts to an extreme close-up of Jasper’s hand tapping against Skyler’s shoulder, panning up to show her response. It is only after introducing himself that the film returns to the initial shot, now revealed to be his subjective point of view rather than an establishing shot. Simply by existing, the girls are under observation, and at risk of potential violence.
“If it’s a negative, it might be a positive, but a positive is always a positive,” a nurse informs Autumn early into the film. When damage is done, there is no way to reverse it, but those who are supposedly safe always are at risk of having something happening to them (A particularly jarring idea in the midst of a pandemic). It only needs to happen once. There only needs to be one man who slips through the boundary. A man like Jasper is dangerous not because he is explicitly hostile but because he actively abuses social norms to get closer to those who are most vulnerable. He is an unsettling character because his threat to Skyler is hidden behind supposedly altruistic means. While his attempts may be laughably obvious, other dangers are far less so, such as the women at the pregnancy crisis centre who lie to Autumn about how long she’s been pregnant, and use her vulnerable state to push an anti-abortion agenda. A particularly jarring but not surprising result given that pregnancy crisis centres exist largely as a way to misinform women about abortion. Each threat poses the same goal: violating the girls’ boundaries and denying them autonomy over their own bodies.
Never Rarely is an accomplishment of a film because it refuses to ever cross over this line itself, understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy, and avoiding a pitfall which often occurs in films dealing with assault and trauma. In many films, exposition is used as a way to build audience sympathy for a character by showing (or telling) the audience the damage that has previously been done to them. It’s often used cheaply and without respect to how the character in question experienced the events, or their desire to not revisit them. Rather than disclose this information, and in keeping with the film’s distant approach to Autumn’s internal thoughts, the audience never learns explicitly what happened to her, nor the identity of her abuser. The vast majority of the film’s exposition remains unsaid. There are only hints given, as with the scene midway through the film in which Autumn speaks with the counsellor at Planned Parenthood.
What makes this particular scene so strong is that while it is similar to previous scenes in that Autumn is confronted by someone who wants to get close to her, it is the first time that anyone respects her boundaries and decisions, and the first time anyone goes out of their way to listen to her. The scene also underscores the failure of bureaucracy to understand human experiences outside of its own constructions. Human memory and feelings rarely fit into the small bubbles of an intake form. In a masterful moment of both directing and acting the camera holds on Autumn as she is questioned and asked to respond with one of four words: never, rarely, sometimes, and always. Each repetition of those four words further emphasises how difficult it is to put your trust in someone else after having your autonomy taken away, and being unable to call your body completely your own. It is the first time in the film where Autumn is given back the ability to set the limits of herself.
She is like Persephone, taken away to the underworld and beset by unseen monsters on every side, threatening to pull her down further if given the chance. Not merely is she lost in the labyrinth of bureaucracy, Autumn, like so many other girls, is at risk of slipping through the gaps of a vast tapestry fraying at the seams. Men in the film are at worst rapists and at best wilful participants in a broken system, denying the girls train tickets and shooing the unhoused away from the waiting areas at night. It is not individual actors who are dangerous. It is the bureaucracy which treats people not as humans but as resources, and prioritises money above all else. It is the grocery store which exploits Autumn and Skyler. It is the Pregnancy Crisis Centre that views women as simply as a means to produce children. There is no happy end to Never Rarely. Autumn may have regained authority over herself but it was a loss that never should have occurred in the first place. She is still trapped in the system. Violence may find her again, but for one moment she is able to set the limits of herself. She can rest, leaning her head against the window, and listening to the rumbling sounds of the bus driving along the interstate. In this fleeting moment, she is safe.
by Emma Ambrose
Emma Ambrose (she/her) is a queer trans writer interested in the incredibly light topics of body horror, coming of age stories, and cyberpunk film. When not desperately yearning for season two of Euphoria, she can be found roller skating (badly) or playing video games (decently). Favorite films include Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, The Handmaiden, and Blade Runner 2049. Any complaints, concerns, or flirtatious compliments can be directed to her on Twitter.