A film about two teenage girls navigating the streets of New York by themselves with little money or a place to stay is normally the breeding ground for melodrama. In the hands of director Eliza Hittman (“Beach Rats”) and remarkably natural performances by first time actors, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, however, the film Never Rarely Sometimes Always becomes a sincere and believable drama that never strains credulity. Though it explores the subject of abortion, a hot button political topic that can be counted on to stir up debate, Hittman tackles the issue from the point of view of a confused 17-year-old girl, and we understand the deep impact that the issue has on people’s lives.
Autumn Callahan (Flanigan) is burdened by the pain and loneliness of an unwanted pregnancy and has no support from her dysfunctional family. It is a daunting challenge, and one that many teenage girls face as they attempt to define their sense of self in a society that can be unforgiving. The film opens at a high-school talent show without giving the viewer any direction as to time and place. As Autumn on stage shakily sings the song, “He’s Got the Power” by The Exciters that contains the words, “He makes me do things I don’t want to do. He makes me say things I don’t want to say,” the pretend smile on her face turns to dismay when a boy in the audience sitting near her parents (Sharon Van Etten, “The OA” TV series) and Ryan Eggold, (“BlacKkKlansman”) yells “Slut!” to the delight of his friends.
She stops momentarily, then resumes, determined to express the feelings the song contains. There is no back story and we never find out the events that led up to this moment. Later, in the solitude of her room, after piercing her nose, she looks at herself in front of a full-length mirror, and we discover that she is pregnant. Hittman explains, “I was thinking about not having one antagonist but about the ways in which the world is in smaller and larger ways hostile to women.” The toxic masculinity that teenage girls deal with on a regular basis is depicted in scenes in which a young man makes lewd gestures to Autumn at a restaurant, when the grocery store manager kisses her hand and that of her cousin 20-year-old Skylar (Ryder) when they give in their registers’ take, when Autumn and Skylar manage to avoid a sexually-aggressive drunk on a subway train, and when a college student (Théodore Pellerin, “Boy Erased”) tries to hit on them on a bus trip, though he ends up being someone they count on for support.
When she visits a women’s clinic in rural Pennsylvania, Autumn is told that she is ten weeks pregnant (later found to be 18 weeks) and is asked to watch a video with a strong anti-abortion message. Her head filled with the counselor’s words like “beautiful” and “magic” to describe giving birth, Autumn makes a different choice but learns that, in the state of Pennsylvania, parental consent is required for an underage girl to have an abortion. Pilfering money from the cash register in the supermarket in which they work, Autumn sets out for New York on the bus with Skylar to visit an abortion clinic, determined to resolve her unwanted pregnancy. Frightened and unable to articulate her feelings, Autumn barely talks at all for long stretches of time, but the tenderness and caring in her relationship with her cousin is obvious.
One of the most incisive images in Never Rarely Sometimes Always is of the two girls holding each other’s hand tightly in a way that makes words irrelevant. Once in New York, the girls are shuttled between abortion clinics and learn that the procedure will require an overnight stay in the city and an appointment the next morning. New York is like another world for Autumn and Skylar, but they have no time or desire for sightseeing. With no money for a hotel, the girls spend hours in the waiting room of the seedy Port Authority Bus Terminal. The tension which had been building is released in a powerful scene at the abortion clinic the following day when the meaning behind the film’s title becomes clear.
Here in one continuous shot filmed by gifted cinematographer Hélène Louvart (“Happy as Lazzaro”), Autumn is asked to respond to intimate questions about her sexual activity by answering “never, rarely, sometimes, or always.” Some questions such as “Your partner makes you have sex when you don’t want to?” bring tears to her eyes when she is forced to relive traumatic moments. Hittman, talking about the scene says, “I spent a lot of time in clinics talking to social workers, and it is true to the experience of going in and being counseled before an abortion, clinicians, and social workers wanting to know the nature of the pregnancy.”
While Hittman’s position on the issue of abortion rights is clear, the film is not a social or political inquiry, but one about relationship, alienation, and the heartbreaking odyssey of growing up having to confront difficult choices. While not overtly stated, Autumn’s odyssey dramatizes the need to protect women’s reproductive rights. Since Never Rarely Sometimes Always was made, the situation for young, pregnant women has grown even more precarious. Using the pandemic as a rationale, many states have closed clinics as a “non-essential service” claiming the need for more hospital beds. With a reconstituted Supreme Court, willing and eager to consider overturning Roe v. Wade, Hittman’s film becomes all the more devastating and, in her quiet way, Autumn’s bravery brings the struggle of all women into sharp focus.