Sidney Flanigan is excellent as a pregnant teen in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” (Courtesy Focus Features)

Compelling ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ new on demand

‘Slay the Dragon,’ ‘Other Lamb’ also notable


Two high-school girls navigate the confusing, bureaucratic, politically compromised world of abortion services in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a modest but mesmerizing drama from Eliza Hittman, one of cinema’s top portraitists of contemporary young people.

The made-for-the-big-screen drama opens Friday at home on demand.

Hittman eloquently weaves social substance into a tale of friendship in this braver-than-average studio movie, which, like her Brooklyn-set “It Felt Like Love” and “Beach Rats,” contains a naturalistic tone imbued with teenage wistfulness and features working-class young people who wind up in risky places. This time, the plot involves an urgent journey that begins in small-town Pennsylvania.

Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a taciturn 17-year-old with a caring mother (Sharon Van Etten), an unpleasant stepfather (Ryan Eggold) and a supportive cousin and best friend named Skylar (Talia Ryder). She also has a bump in her abdomen that she can’t ignore anymore.

After visiting a sorry excuse for a local women’s health clinic, Autumn, her pregnancy confirmed, chooses to have an abortion. Unable to terminate a pregnancy in Pennsylvania without parental consent, she boards a bus for New York City. Skylar, who, to fund the trip, has stolen cash from the store where the girls work part-time, accompanies her.

The abortion necessitates a two-night stay in the city, and without enough money for lodging, the pair visit arcades and hang out in the Port Authority station for hours.

They additionally spend time with Jasper (Theodore Pellerin), a date-seeking college guy who the girls hope will lend them money and not expect much in return. We worry for their safety.

While reaping effective suspense from the question of whether Jasper is dangerous, Hittman goes a bit overboard when making practically every male she puts onscreen — a school talent-show heckler, Autumn’s possibly abusive stepfather, the girls’ jerky grocery boss, a subway creep — menacing.

But as Autumn and Skylar make their way around daunting, enormous, expensive New York City, Hittman delivers an immersing, atmospheric, emotionally truthful drama about two young women braving a situation they shouldn’t have to be in.

The film contains not only suspense but social content that brings “Little Woods” and the Romanian thriller “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” to mind. Hittman quietly but soundly addresses the shaky and unequal access women have to reproductive care.

The Planned Parenthood clinic scenes capture the abortion process in riveting detail — both the bureaucracy and the humanity involved.

Hittman’s bare-bones storytelling — we don’t learn how, or with whom, Autumn became pregnant, for example— gives Autumn’s situation a big-picture, universal aspect.

Flanigan, a musician making her acting debut, is outstanding. She’s particularly impressive when Autumn, during a clinic interview in which the movie’s titular adverbs serve as reply options, reveals, in a superb close-up, scars of trauma beneath her cool facade.

Ryder, too, shines. Excepting a brief clash that feels contrived, the dynamics between Flanigan’s near-silent Autumn and Ryder’s livelier Skylar, who communicate volumes with mere glances, are, like most of this movie, believable and captivating.


Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Three and a half stars

Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Theodore Pellerin, Sharon Van Etten

Written and directed by: Eliza Hittman

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Katie Fahey is a successful Michigan activist in “Slay the Dragon,” a compelling documentary about gerrymandering. (Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Most of us are aware of gerrymandering— the longtime practice of drawing voter-district borders in ways that benefit one major political party over the other — but know peanuts about it. “Slay the Dragon,” available Friday on VOD, should erase that deficiency, and, honest, the film’s no snoozer.

Directors Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance’s engaging and accessibly informative documentary reveals the mentality behind gerrymandering and shows how it critically threatens democracy.

The film informs that while the Republican Party isn’t the only party that has practiced gerrymandering, it has, in recent years, done so egregiously. After Democrats scored major victories in 2008 (when Barack Obama was elected), the seemingly moribund GOP, in state races, made a startling comeback, which the filmmakers attribute to behind-closed-doors strategizing, sophisticated technology and easily accessed personal data. This allowed the party to take control of some redistricting processes.

District lines are redrawn after a national census occurs.

Results have been disturbing. Voters likely to support Democratic candidates, including African-American voters, have found themselves isolated in predominantly Republican districts, where their votes often can’t count. The filmmakers additionally link gerrymandering to the unaccountability of politicians during the Flint, Mich. water crisis.

Not all is discouraging, however. Some citizens have taken action to fight gerrymandering, and the film upliftingly spotlights two such efforts — one victorious.

In Michigan, Katie Fahey, a young woman with no prior political experience, organized the group Voters Not Politicians to change the process so that a nonpartisan citizen commission, not a nontransparent partisan committee, would redraw district lines. The VNP got its measure onto the ballot. It won.

In Wisconsin, Democratic voters took a case involving Republican gerrymandering to the U.S. Supreme Court. The results were disappointing (the arrival of Trump-appointed justice Brett Kavanaugh, replacing Anthony Kennedy, is cited as a factor), but consciousness was raised.

Goodman and Durrance don’t supply revelations, and their filmmaking, while solid, is conventional.

Still, the film is comprehensive, and its assertions are convincing. Journalists, politicians, attorneys and political analysts interviewed are enlightening. And Fahey, who demonstrates that everyday people can sometimes change the rules, is a terrific subject.

This is an important film that should interest anyone who cares about democracy’s future.

As for the term “gerrymander,” it comes from 19th-century Massachusetts politician Elbridge Gerry and a comment comparing the bizarre shape of a redrawn district to a salamander.


Slay the Dragon

Three stars

Starring: Katie Fahey, Ruth Greenwood, David Daley, Ari Berman

Directed by: Barak Goodman, Chris Durrance

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

“The Other Lamb,” by Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska, examines cult mentality. (Courtesy IFC Films)

“The Other Lamb,” Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska’s English-language debut, also begins streaming Friday. This made-for-the-big-screen horror thriller and MeToo-era social drama, written by Catherine S. McMullen, brings to mind Margaret Atwood, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Carrie” as it presents the awakening of Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a teen member of a cult led by a deranged Jesus wannabe called Shepherd (Michiel Huisman).

In a misty forest, Shepherd presides over a “flock” of “wives” and “daughters” (it’s as unsavory as it sounds) wearing centuries-old fashions. Inspired by rebellious “wife” Sarah (Denise Gough), Selah begins to defy Shepherd. Others do likewise. Nightmarish visions, including those of a dead sheep, accompany Selah’s transformation.

Were these normal times for movies, the critical bar here would be higher. Szumowska depicts the cult mentality superficially and goes overboard with the symbolism — lambs, sheep, menstrual blood. But her poetic eye produces striking imagery, her storytelling is immersing and her depiction of women revolting against their male oppressor can’t help but feel current. Cassidy, suggesting both a contemporary wild child and a Renaissance-painting subject, impresses as an emerging force of resistance.


The Other Lamb

Two and a half stars

Starring: Raffey Cassidy, Denise Gough, Michiel Huisman

Directed by: Malgorzata Szumowska

Written by: Catherine S. McMullen

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

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