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This weekend sees the release of a new teen film that’s an alternative to many of the fluffy junior “rom-coms” that the studios would normally be releasing this time of year, but this year, need I remind you, is far from normal. it’s a grim, gritty hard-edged drama featuring a cast of relative unknowns, all about a decision that so many young women are faced with. No, it’s not about picking a prom dress, or even choosing a college. This is literally life and death, although it’s title appears to offer lots of options. Though it may sound whimsical, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS concerns a truly harrowing “road trip” for lots of teens (and even pre-teens).

The story actually starts on a bit of fun as we watch several high school kids singing and dancing on the auditorium stage in a rural Pennsylvania town. Many of them are doing campy, nostalgic tributes to 1950’s pop culture, complete with a bejeweled white-jumpsuited Elvis. And then Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) hi-jacks the “sop hop” hi-jinks with a folk-guitar (yeah, there were lots of those 60 years ago) number filled with despair and heartbreak which earns her a heckler. Stopping off for a post-show pizza her mother (Sharon Van Etten) offers some weak compliments while her stepdad (Ryan Eggold) begins his nightly beer blast to oblivion. The next morning Autumn’s feeling a tad off. Her blouse is a bit snug, so she acts on her suspicions and drops into a nearby “family planning” clinic. The drug-store test kit confirms her fears, she’s pregnant. A follow-up ultrasound reveals that she’s ten weeks along. After some attempts at self-termination, Autumn finally decides to share her secret with her out-going cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) during a break at their cashier jobs at the local grocery store. After doing some online research, they learn that the closest state that allows non-parental consent procedures is New York. They hatch a plan. After grabbing a few twenties from their cash deposit bags at work, the duo hops a bus for the “Big Apple”. Just a fast “round trip”, dash to a clinic and back on a return bus. Of course things don’t go smoothly (the ultrasound was “off”) and they’ve got to stay for more than a day. Quite a bit more. More than their cash will last. Can these two 17-year-olds survive NYC on their own? And nearly broke? And what are the folks back home thinking?

It’s hard to believe but this is the feature film (no TV either) debut of Flanigan, who truly carries the film (she’s in almost every scene) making Autumn one of the most complex teeange characters ever to be the focus of a drama. In the opening sequences as she deals with the jerks from school and from home, she’s the snarky teen stereotype as she rolls her eyes and marches , shoulders hunched, down the dank dirty streets. As she deals with the “family planners” she’s almost passive to the point of dozing off, even as the kindly “granny” receptionist pops in a DVD transfer of a “shock” VHS pro-life tape that looks to be from the Reagan era. Instead she “steps up”, taking physical risks (pharmaceuticals and blunt trauma) to deal with her “changes”. It’s tough to get a behavioral “bead’ on her until the story’s emotional high-point. An NYC counselor stuns her with a series of questions (the title refers to the four responses) that opens up the “flood-gates”. Each inquiry (“Does your partner ever force you to have sex?”, etc.) seems to unleash the memories, chipping away at her “tough” outer shell like a hammer and chisel. We finally see the abused child beneath the ever-present hoodie. This could be the start of a great film career for her. She gets great support from Ryder, who’s the BFF we all wish was in our corner. Her Skylar is more open to people than Autumn which often backfires but also lets her get away with a lot. Speaking of her character’s charms, Theodore Pellerin is most compelling, and a tad repellant. as the fellow bus passenger who sets his sites on her, quickly going from clumsy goofball to aggressively persistent.

Writer/director Eliza Hittman doesn’t “sugarcoat” the situation, never flinching from the squalor of Autumn’s homelife and the dangerous mean streets she and Skylar must navigate. Audiences on either side of the “life” debate will certainly find many sequences difficult to endure, particularly Autumn’s attempts to induce a miscarriage. Hey I had a tough enough time with her “home piercing”, as she takes a safety pin to a nostril. Aside from the “hot button” topic, we’re given a glimpse into the constant dangers of being a young woman, with predators seemingly at every corner, from Pellerin’s Jaspar who keeps insisting that the girls go “downtown’ with him, to a drunken leering subway creep (right from Wall Street, in his three-piece-suit). The duo has to always be on “their guard” which almost turns this drama into a squirmy thriller. This is heightened by the neon, fluorescent-lit photography of Helene Louvart, giving everything a 1970s seedy glow. Some audiences may be frustrated that Autumn never really explains how she got in her situation, although we wonder about her scowling stepdad, but this helps keep us wrapped up in the story’s immediacy with no lengthy monologues, or arty flashbacks to take us away from the “now”. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS is a raw emotional look at a decision that continues to divide us.

3 Out of 4

Available via Video On Demand through most cable and home satellite systems and streaming on most apps including Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, VUDU, Google Play, Xfinity, and Fandango Now.

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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