It is tough to remember what things were like before. Maybe the memory is too painful, or our new normal is too immediate. Either way, there is an indulgence when thinking about life before a pandemic. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a bracing, powerful reminder that things were not so rosy back then. Eliza Hittman, who wrote and directed the film, is acutely aware of what befalls young women in this country. In a more human healthcare system, these young women would not need to compromise the way they do.
Sidney Flanigan plays Autumn, a teenage girl in a small Pennsylvania town. She is sullen and withdrawn, but with good reason: she is pregnant. The father is an asshole – the film wisely ignores him – and instead focuses on each step of what she does next. She goes to a clinic where she thinks she will get unbiased information. It turns out to be a Crisis Pregnancy Center, a place that purports to be about healthcare but is more about avoiding an abortion. Autumn is not stupid and she needs an abortion, so eventually she sees through their bullshit. With the help of her cousin Sylar (Talia Ryder), Autumn travels to Planned Parenthood in New York City.
Like her last film Beach Rats, Hittman prefers unflinching realism. She does not judge Autumn’s choices, no matter bizarre they may seem. In fact, Never Rarely goes out of its way to show why Autumn does what she does, no matter the size of the gesture. There is a tender, deliberate scene where she pierces her nose. This decision seems frivolous, except this is one way she can assert the autonomy she craves. Her pregnancy is not her choice, but she is able to use a clothespin the way she wants. Autumn and Skylar’s lack of control is a crucial part of the long stretch in New York, a place where they are safe but lack any resources. Someone at Planned Parenthood offers help they desperately need, and yet Autumn refuses it. The shame is too great.
Flanigan and Ryder make their acting debuts in this film. Their performances are remarkable because they are unaffected and raw, as if the film is a documentary about a painful experience. This is never clearer than an unflinching, intense scene where a counselor at Planned Parenthood asks Autumn about her sexual history. Autumn has four choices in her answers – that is where the film gets its title – except her experience cannot be so neatly summarized. The impersonal nature of the questions are meant to be easier, somehow, except Autumn has never articulated the outright abuse her boyfriend administered.
Skylar is more outgoing and wise – their plan for New York is hers, and unfolds wordlessly – except she is also vulnerable. There is a subplot between her and an unsuspecting young man (Théodore Pellerin), and it unfolds with impersonal exploitation. Both the man and Skylar need something, leading to a sad, tender moment where, in Skylar’s desperation, she puts herself in a situation she would rather not be. Autumn has the wherewithal to understand this, and the way they acknowledge this need is heartbreaking.
A lot of Never Rarely Sometimes Always is about transactions. The deepest, most meaningful are between Autumn and Skylar, which is another way of saying the rest are clinical or cold. The healthcare workers are Planned Parenthood can only do so much, while the manipulation at the Crisis Pregnancy Center is malignant. Like 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, this film treats Autumn’s abortion as a given. Hittman’s approach is the right one, since Autumn never waivers her decision. The only part that changes is how she feels about it, brought forth by a system designed to make her feel miserable. Autumn’s story is not unique, which is what makes the film so intense and angry. If and when abortion starts to get outlawed in this country, the remaining alternatives are unimaginable. What is in place is already so cruel.
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