Never Rarely Sometimes Always
September 1, 2020
Sharon Van Etten
1 Hr., 40 Mins.
hat is she going to do? A little into Eliza Hittman’s remarkable new movie, Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), its 17-year-old protagonist, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), enters a crisis pregnancy center in her small Pennsylvania town, takes a test, and is told that she’s about 10 weeks along. She knows without a doubt that she doesn’t want to be a mother; she also knows without a doubt that
she would not like to give birth, go through the adoption process. She isn’t ready. But these are things she knows she cannot say so explicitly to employees of this center, who tell her that her baby’s heartbeat will be the most beautiful sound she will ever hear and who will screen an anti-abortion propaganda video with the nonchalance of a dental hygenist handing out a goodie bag at the end of a tooth cleaning. Autumn knows certainly that she cannot tell the father of the child, whom we never meet. (We’re not privy to the details surrounding the pregnancy.) She knows that she doesn’t want to tell her mother (Sharon Van Etten), either. But in Pennsylvania, Autumn cannot at her age get an abortion without a parent’s permission. What is she going to do?
In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Autumn resolves to journey to New York City, to a Planned Parenthood (the film is named after the structure of one of the clinic’s questionnaires), with her cousin and good friend Skylar (Talia Ryder). Skylar is so understanding that she doesn’t so much as pause when Autumn asks for her help. To make sure they have the money for train tickets, she swipes the required amount from the grocery store where they both work. It’s harrowing to watch these teenagers navigate this situation's precarity. Obstacles proliferate. Autumn discovers that she is farther along than she had been led to believe, which means the procedure is going to take a few days rather than just one; she and Skylar have to fend off the advances of a determined young man (Théodore Pellerin) who expresses an interest in them on the train and then in the city; they don’t have enough money to get a hotel, so they must wander between Autumn’s appointments. (Hittman has noted the Odyssean films of Robert Bresson as an inspiration to the movie’s mode of storytelling.)
Hittman has said that she was motivated to make the movie in the early 2010s, after reading about Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Irish dentist who tragically died after being unable to receive a medically necessary abortion that would have saved her life. “I had images of women on the run, taking these harrowing trips to abortion clinics,” Hittman told Vanity Fair earlier this year. “I had never seen a movie about that or the barriers that women face.” Many reviewers have noted that the film, in addition to functioning as an engaging drama, also serves as something of a PSA. It's not only one of the rare movies to dramatize such a story — it also highlights how damaging a thing medical inaccessibility and ideological deception can be, especially on young women.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always also accentuates how male dominance can stymie the assuredness and general ability of these women in how they move about the world: the aforementioned overattentive young man, though unwanted, might be able to help the girls financially; at the supermarket, both Autumn and Skylar endure sexual harassment from their boss; and at home, Autumn’s father (Ryan Eggold) is generally aggressive to the women in his life. (In one moment where Autumn calls her mother in a panic, briefly considering telling her what’s going on, it’s clear that she has no intention of letting her father know.) In the opening scene of the film, which finds Autumn beautifully singing a cover of “He’s Got the Power” by the 1960s group the Exciters at a talent show, a boy in the crowd cough-heckles “slut!,” throwing off what is otherwise a rapturously well-received performance. While being interviewed by a Planned Parenthood worker, Autumn reveals that nearly all of her sex partners have been emotionally and physically abusive, and that she is familiar with coercion.
Flanigan and Ryder, both making their film debuts here, do sensitive, lived-in work. They're heart-rending as young women making a succession of high-stakes decisions with little support, many of their mistakes rooted in misinformation and extensions of their general naïvete. (Before deciding to try out Planned Parenthood, Autumn tries, in what’s probably the movie’s hardest-to-watch scene, to terminate the pregnancy herself following a cursory Google search.) One watches the movie unceasingly in a state of nervousness; the only relief really comes at the end of the movie, after the inexorable abortion. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an evocative, compassionately made film — an important, but never didactic, one, too. A-