Reading Cinema: Reception Theory and Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Some people may think of cinema as something to purely be enjoyed – and I agree. But it’s so much more than that. Beyond escapism, film and television are a reflection of the communities in which we live, a social commentary on important issues and a representation of humans in their various forms.

I write about film and television because I enjoy deconstructing how meaning is created through the way each text was made – both technically and symbolically. The best art, media and literature is layered in meaning and invites us to unpick the motives of characters, the possible direction of the narrative (before the audience has entered and after they’ve left – fan theories and fan fiction, anyone?), as well as considering authorial intent.

Theory is useful in helping us to approach media with a framework in mind. With Eliza Hittman’s 2020 film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, I was struck by the flawless storytelling and moving central performance as a teenager travels to New York for an abortion without parental consent, but more than that, by the audience response.

Before I get into some of the reactions to Never Rarely Sometimes Always, here is a brief overview of one audience theory…

Stuart Hall’s Reception Theory has two different elements. First, he asserts that media is encoded and decoded – that the producer (in this case, Hittman) encodes messages, which are subsequently decoded by the audience. The second part of the theory explains how audience might decode meanings – how they ‘read’ the film:

· Dominant reading – how the producer would prefer audiences to view the text.

· Oppositional reading – when the audience rejects the preferred reading and creates their own.

· Negotiated reading – a compromise between the dominant and oppositional readings, where an audience member might accept some of the producer’s views but bring some of their own too.

In some cases, before we have even viewed the first frame of a film or show, we have already decided on the ‘reading route’ we are going to take. If we know a film is about something that challenges our own beliefs, culture or life experiences, we might be set on opposing the producer’s views before seeing it. Sometimes this can be genuine and subconscious – the strong marketing and promotion of a film can be influential to the point of us thinking we’re going to see our favourite film of year before even setting foot in the cinema, or, on the contrary, it might influence us to the extent that we put us off seeing it completely.

However, it can also be due to a more active – and in some cases, malicious – act of rejection because the existence of a text doesn’t align with what someone values. Remember when Rotten Tomatoes had to ban user reviews before Captain Marvel had even been released? Hoards of trolls decided that the casting of a female superhero was so offensive to them that it deserved mass sabotage. This ‘review-bombing’ didn’t deter the star of the film Brie Larson and it went on to make $1.128 billion at the box office. Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Black Panther and the 2016 all-women remake of Ghostbusters all received similar treatment pre-release because of their progressive nature (among other sexist and racist quibbles). With this in mind, a film about women’s reproductive rights was always likely to provoke some strong reactions.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 and since then has received rave reviews across the board from critics. However, one look at audience reviews and it’s a completely different story. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has an audience score of 46% (compared to 99% on the Tomatometer), with many one-line reviews giving the film 1 star. Of course, these voting metrics are only a small indication of a film’s reception, but they are indicative of an audience portion who feel so strongly that they feel the need to share their opinion, so it is worth some investigation.

Many of the reviews under 2 stars cited the film as being a dull waste of their time, or stated that the main character was distant and lifeless. In a film where the unspoken says more than any amount of words ever could, perhaps she wasn’t in the mood to say very much. Perhaps silence felt like the easier option after being sexually abused and forced to travel across state lines to terminate a baby she wasn’t ready to have? Maybe Hittman intended to create a sombre tone to reflect and empathise with Autumn, the main character?

Some examples from RT and Letterboxd:

· ‘Biased. Obviously. Not realistic.’

· ‘A really manipulative look into the fictitious world where Pennsylvania doesn't have legal abortions.’

· ‘Can't understand how this gets 99%. No story , No emotions , just dull. spend your time on something else. Might as well turn off the tv and stare at it for an hour and half it would more interesting.’

· ‘Trite, convoluted and just plain unwatchable.’

· ‘Hostile to men.’

· ‘Okay we get it, all guys suck.’

· ‘Yeah, all men are perverts women life very hard and that bullshit. The main character is boring, uninteresting and unlikable.’

Some had high expectations for more action and drama, or had hopes that the main character would be more animated, but given the journey the character is going through – physically, psychologically, mentally – this just wouldn’t be plausible and would detract from the story being told, understated though it may be. Somewhat expectedly, there were comments from pro-lifers too (including an Oscar voter, who Hittman called out after he emailed her declaring his refusal to even watch it - see the screenshot of his email on the director's account below). If anything, this response proves that the subject matter is still considered taboo and that there is all the more reason for films of a similar vain to be produced.

But one of the oddest takeaways from the responses to the film was that it was ‘hostile to men’. It seems from these comments that no reading of the text has occurred at all. To clarify, it is a drama that centres around a young woman and her friend, travelling to New York from rural, conservative Pennsylvania so that she can terminate an unwanted pregnancy. There are male characters – none of whom are the definite ‘antagonist’, but this film doesn’t prioritise the male gaze and it isn’t about their experience, it’s about Autumn’s. To make that leap requires some serious opposition to the message of the film and we can say that some skewed decoding has occurred during viewings.

Just because the film is thoughtful and empathetic to women, doesn’t mean it’s hostile to men. It’s curious that a film directed and written by a woman who is telling a female-centric story can evoke so many reactions about the male experience and allude to such male fragility. This isn’t to say that anyone’s views of this film – or any film, for that matter – should be dismissed. It’s just that in this instance, when responses clearly reject Hittman’s storytelling and approach, it reads as insensitive and entitled. Besides which, this response reads as wholly contradictory to Hittman’s actual intentions – she has said that the film is about ‘the ways in which the world is in smaller and larger ways hostile to women’ – to invert this intent suggests a gross misreading of the film.

In considering Hall’s Reception Theory, one would expect pro-lifers to automatically reject this film because it completely opposes their beliefs. But for so many male viewers to adopt an oppositional stance shows that many men are simply not paying attention - to the film and in life generally! I would hope that anyone reading this thinks carefully about how they negotiate and read cinema in future. Of course, acknowledge what you dislike or disagree with in a film, but try to consider the purpose and nature of each text for what it is too before misaligning your own insecurities with those on screen.

The stigma of important issues like women’s reproductive rights is very real and it continues – especially in America following Trump’s presidency - but the fact that films telling these stories are being greenlit, even if there is opposition, should provide some comfort for girls and women around the world. There is work to do, and much to negotiate, but the fact that large numbers of people are watching in admiration is testament that people do care.


This post is part of a month-long virtual event to mark International Women's Day in March 2021. Check out the #ChoosetoChallengeCinema hashtag on Instagram, Twitter or view the details of the event here.


Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to stream on NOW TV in the UK now. Watch the trailer below: