The story at the center of Never Rarely Sometimes Always is deceptively simple, but the film Eliza Hittman builds around it is extraordinary. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a Pennsylvania teenager with an unwanted pregnancy, travels to New York City to obtain an abortion. Hittman doesn’t try to moralize or exaggerate her circumstances in order to make Autumn more relatable or likable, so what’s left — a statement of facts regarding the number of hoops women have to jump through in order to have autonomy — is remarkable, and remarkably affecting. By the end of the story, “never rarely sometimes always,” which seems easy to forget or mess up, is an unforgettable phrase rather than just a litany of related words.
It’s clear from the outset that the world around Autumn is stuck in the past. At her school talent show, the kids dress up in ’50s and ’60s outfits and sing oldies. Only Autumn seems dialed into the present day, as her rendition of the 1963 song “He’s Got the Power” makes it sound like modern indie pop. That antiquated sense persists as Autumn visits a women’s health clinic in her hometown. When she asks about the possibility of an abortion, the clinic workers show her a pro-life video and harp about her “beautiful baby.”
So Autumn decides to go to New York, where, as a minor, she won’t have to get her parents’ consent to obtain an abortion. When she tells her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) what she plans to do, Skylar wordlessly steals money from the drawer of the store where they work (where their manager, every time they drop off the cash from the registers, holds onto and kisses their hands) to pay for their bus tickets into the city.
Skylar and Autumn’s relationship gives the audience a glimmer of hope to hang onto, and makes the film empathetic rather than potentially voyeuristic or totally miserable, as the steps Autumn has to take grow more and more complicated. One facility sends her to another that will only take her the next day. The procedure takes longer and is more expensive than she bargained for. She and Skylar run out of money for the subway and the bus back. The problems only pile up. But at least they have each other.
The obstacles they face aren’t limited to the difficulty of getting an abortion, though — they encounter sexual harassment and male aggression everywhere they go. Their store manager is just the beginning. Autumn’s stepfather refers to the family dog as a “slut,” and defends his language by saying the dog likes it. Skylar and Autumn face a creep on the New York subway, and a young man on the bus to New York who touches Skylar to get her attention. The fight for autonomy is on all fronts, from the right to get an abortion to the right to simply exist without feeling endangered.
Hittman gets all this across simply by portraying the unfolding events honestly. Everything that happens is relatively mundane, and the sense of dread hanging over the proceedings only reflects that the world we live in can be frightening, particularly for those with little recourse. Nothing in the movie feels exaggerated or unbelievable, making Autumn’s struggle all the more devastating. The things occurring to her occur to real women every day, and cinematographer Hélène Louvart makes the unfolding events feel truer by going handheld, shakily following the young women around the city.
The slow build-up — and Autumn and Skylar’s stoicism through it all — makes it all the more affecting when the reasoning behind the film’s title is revealed, as Autumn goes through a pre-abortion interview at Planned Parenthood, and is told to answer the questions asked with “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” or “always.” She’s put on a brave face thus far, but confronted with actual care and kindness — and the sense that she’s finally in a somewhat safe space — that tough front begins to crack. Her resilience doesn’t make her unfeeling, and the simple freedom to be vulnerable is momentous.
The clarity and care with which Hittman handles a relatively straightforward story lends Never Rarely Sometimes Always an urgency greater than it would have if she tried to moralize about making proper care more easily accessible to (and less stigmatized for) women. There are no unnecessary details (even the identity of Autumn’s baby’s father is never mentioned), boiling the focus down to just two young women. The ordeal they go through is preventable, but in the immediate moment, where it’s not, thank God they aren’t alone.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is now available on VOD and digital platforms.
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