A 17-year-old girl in small-town Pennsylvania sets out to get an abortion. That’s not just the premise of Eliza Hittman’s excellent new film Never Rarely Sometimes Always—it’s the sum total of its plot.
There’s no need to stir up additional drama: Essentially everything that happens to Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) over the course of the 100 minutes we see her is a natural consequence of the regressive patchwork of discriminatory laws regulating women’s bodies in the U.S.
Autumn is first introduced to us onstage, the candor and openness of her singing a jarring contrast to the rest of the garishly retro high school talent show that’s preceded her. Neither the Lynchian air of the teen acts nor Autumn’s willingness to place herself at the center of attention suggests how subtle Hittman’s visual sensibility and guarded Flanigan’s portrayal will prove to be, but the setup does effectively display how alienated from her hometown Autumn is and that, however blank she may sometimes seem, she is always performing, determining which face will allow her to avoid the worst consequences.
After Autumn’s pee test is positive, the older women at the local clinic force a grotesque anti-choice propaganda film on her, concerned she might be “abortion-minded.” That’s understating it—unlike… well, just about every American movie ever that addresses abortion, Autumn doesn’t agonize over her decision. Her main obstacle is that the commonwealth of Pennsylvania insists that she secure parental approval. We glimpse just enough of Autumn’s family life to know her dad’s an inappropriate jackass but not to learn how deep the dysfunction runs. All we see is that she doesn’t want them to know about her decision. But Autumn does confide in her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who pockets some cash from the grocery store where the girls work together. They bus up to New York, where Autumn can terminate the pregnancy of her own volition.
Released to prize-winning acclaim at Sundance and Berlin, Hittman’s film went straight to VOD today, a casualty of the quarantine era, and it would make for strange home-viewing even in less distracted times. While the settings of Never Rarely Sometimes Always are uniquely American—the grimly impersonal clinics, the dreary highway landscape glimpsed from Greyhound level, New York’s inhospitability to the cash-strapped—its feel and pacing is European. When Autumn and Skylar distract themselves between clinic appointments, the mix of tedium and suspense recalls Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7; when an inoperative escalator forces Autumn to lug her suitcase up the Port Authority stairs, the scene suggests those Dardenne brothers films that demonstrate how much effort it takes to accomplish the most basic tasks when you’re broke. And Flanigan’s Autumn is never spunky or smart-alecky, never engaging in the personable quirks needed to curry sympathy with a mainstream audience.
This is the part of the review where I’m supposed to reassure you that Never Rarely Sometimes Always is “not merely” a polemic about the need for expanded reproductive rights. But it doesn’t have to be: Autumn’s struggle does all the work for Hittman. The title refers to the multiple-choice answers the girl is prompted to give in the clinic to questions about her sexual relationships and home life. Though we see Autumn’s mask slip as she struggles to respond, we never learn who the father is or what sorts of abuse she may have suffered. Autumn’s circumstances, her past, are off limits to us. None of it, Hittman suggests, is any of our damn business.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Directed by Eliza Hittman
Now streaming on Amazon Prime