Abortion is largely defined by the politics that surround it. Mainstream art and media overwhelmingly reduce abortion to a topic of political and religious controversy, of culture wars and red-state legislation. Rarely is it treated as what it is: a highly personal health care decision.
But “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a new movie written and directed by Eliza Hittman, does just that.
In the coming-of-age drama, Hittman tells a simple story that forces the viewer to recognize the humanity behind this hot-button issue. Using lean dialogue, subtle acting and subjective cinematography, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is an intimate portrait of abortion with a powerful feminist message.
The story begins in small-town Pennsylvania, where Autumn, a quiet seventeen-year-old girl, lives a bleak existence. Encumbered by a dysfunctional home life and slut-shamed by her peers, Autumn passes her days working at the local grocery store. Her only respite from the hostile environment is the unconditional support of Skylar, her cousin and one true ally.
When Autumn finds out she’s pregnant—and doesn’t want to be—she and Skylar embark on a journey to the closest available abortion provider, which is, unfortunately, a world away in New York City. The feminist odyssey that ensues is replete with trials and tribulations that are not mythical, but rather terrifying in their banality.
First, the girls must steal money and sneak out to make the bus to New York; then, they must surmount a series of institutional obstacles and delays that leave them bankrupt, desperate and temporarily homeless. In each episode of the journey, Hittman never overdramatizes the plight of her characters. The reality of seeking abortion as a poor young woman is harrowing enough.
Peppered throughout the film are the myriad men who prey upon Autumn and Skylar: On the subway, an older man masturbates in front of the girls; as Autumn sings onstage, a classmate yells out “Slut!”; in the bus, Jasper, an older, wealthier man, uses Skylar’s vulnerability and poverty to sexually manipulate her.
But despite their abuses, the villain of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” isn’t one of the characters. Hittman refrains from demonizing even her most reprehensible subjects—not Autumn’s creepy father, not the anti-choice clinic worker, not Jasper. Even the teenager who abused, impregnated and abandoned Autumn is barely a blip in the narrative.
Rather, the antagonist is the million iterations of the patriarchy, which seem to attack the girls at every turn.
The patriarchy proves a formidable foe. When the girls run out of cash, Skylar must capitulate to Jasper’s sexual advances in exchange for the bus fare home. As Jasper pins Skylar’s body against a dirty column, Autumn reaches for her cousin’s hand, and holds it.
United against a sea of unaccountable misogyny, they reach for each other. This is the silent love story that sustains this movie: not a romance, but a sisterhood.
The cousins’ rich relationship is made possible by the casting of Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder. Flanigan, a singer-songwriter debuting in her first movie role, brings a rawness to the character of Autumn. Despite her inexperience—or perhaps because of it—she expertly embodies the wordless distress of a teenager in free fall.
Skylar, played by then-sixteen-year-old actress Ryder, provides a youth and tenderness that elevates the journey’s precariousness. Walking through New York City, the girls appear painfully out of place and unarmed against the predatory world around them. They are children risking their lives for bodily autonomy, collateral damage of the war on women.
But Hittman wisely refrains from exploiting this vulnerability. When so much media lavishes in explicit depictions of women’s trauma, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” does not.
In tense moments, Hittman refuses to indulge in melodrama: no explosive fights, no rousing speeches, no overwrought didacticism. Hittman doesn’t need cheap tricks because the landscape of abortion in America is scary by itself. She doesn’t exaggerate. And she doesn’t need to.
It’s realistic, which is what makes it so unnerving.
This is the emotional abstinence that makes “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” such an effective feminist film. Where another director may have exploited Autumn’s encounter with her abuser or drawn out Jasper’s sexual aggression, Hittman does not. Her writing is sparse with dialogue—she relies on subtext and trusts the audience to fill in for themselves what Autumn has experienced. The most poignant lines are unspoken.
The film’s subjectivity, subtext and self-restraint are most effective in the scene directly preceding the abortion. The scene starts with a social worker asking Autumn a litany of mundane questions, about allergies and anesthesia and diet, and asking her to respond “‘Never,’ ‘Rarely,’ ‘Sometimes,’ or ‘Always.’” The conversation drags on, lulling the viewer into a near-boredom—Autumn doesn’t have the luxury of fast-forwarding, so neither do we. Eventually, the social worker turns to heavier topics, and Autumn becomes less and less sure of her answers.
“Has your partner made you have sex when you didn’t want to?” asks the social worker. “Has your partner ever hit you, slapped you or physically hurt you?”
Autumn’s tearful silence speaks for her. For more than eight minutes, the camera remains trained on the flurry of emotions flashing across her face, unarticulated.
It’s a beautiful choice that epitomizes the power of this film. By taking the viewer so close to the protagonist’s interiority, Hittman forces us to understand what it is to be Autumn, and by extension, forces the viewer to empathize with the millions of Autumns who exist in this world.
“Can you tell me what led to your decision to terminate this pregnancy?” asks the social worker. It’s a subject barely touched on by the film, because Hittman is more interested in listening to Autumn than asking her to explain herself.
Autumn considers the question, then replies. “I’m just not ready to be a mom.”
It’s as simple as that.