Eliza Hittman’s masterful new film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is now available to stream on VOD, opens on a fifties-themed high school talent show: boys wearing letter jackets dance with girls in swing skirts; another impersonates Elvis; still more harmonize a sentimental romantic ditty. This cozy nostalgia trip grinds to a halt when Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), the young hero of this story, takes the stage to perform a downbeat and decidedly modern performance of a single by the early 1960s pop group The Exciters called “He’s Got the Power” that begins, ominously, “He makes me do things I don’t want to do, he makes me say things I don’t want to say.” She is quickly interrupted by a boy who shouts “Slut!” from the audience. After a brief, shaken pause, she carries on with her performance.
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A teenage girl travels to New York City to get an abortion in this Sundance Film Festival hit from director Eliza Hittman.
Autumn, the audience soon learns, is accustomed to carrying on. She endures her stepfather’s hostile comments with minimal resistance and tolerates harassment from her boss at the supermarket. When she visits a women’s health clinic in the remote Pennsylvania town where she lives, concerned that she may be pregnant, she expresses mild incredulity that the doctor administers her an over-the-counter pregnancy test, but schedules a follow-up appointment when the test is positive. At that second appointment, she allows the doctor to play her an anti-abortion propaganda video instead of walking out. When she realizes what is happening, she sits back in her seat, visibly receding into herself, and waits for the experience to be over.
But Autumn cannot simply wait for her pregnancy to go away. After her amateur attempts to self-induce an abortion at home fail, she embarks on an odyssey to terminate her pregnancy. The obstacles in her way are not mythical creatures or seductive women but instead America’s abortion laws and healthcare system. At seventeen, she is too young to terminate a pregnancy in Pennsylvania without the consent of a parent, so she and her plucky cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) steal money from the supermarket and catch a bus to New York City. There they travel from one branch of Planned Parenthood to another, subsist on pastries bought with their few crumpled dollars, and ride the trains all night because they have nowhere to stay.
Hittman, who wrote and directed this film, is attentive to the granular detail of Autumn’s experience. The Planned Parenthood intake process is depicted with care, and the hours Autumn and Skylar spend in-between Autumn’s appointments, trying to figure out how to eat and where to stay, are similarly vivid. The film is gripping, even suspenseful, but most of the tension the audience feels can be attributed less to the script’s narrative flourishes than to Hittman’s intelligent elucidation of the difficulties that women, especially young women of little means, must endure in order to terminate unwanted pregnancies. The limitations on abortion access in America offer young women like Autumn few choices. Though she could keep the baby or attempt a more extreme form of self-induced abortion, Autumn’s only real option is to get on a bus to New York and stay there for as long as she has to until the procedure is complete.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is not, however, a didactic moral lesson, and Autumn is not a generic everywoman. The film is full of big ideas about gender and society, but its characters never discuss these big-picture issues explicitly. Autumn rarely speaks at all. Flanigan, a first-time actor, nevertheless manages to embody and transmit Hittman’s thematic ideas in her performance. Autumn is quiet and emotionally withdrawn; she tries desperately not to make trouble for people, often at cost to herself. And though Flanigan’s performance clearly, painfully conveys what Autumn is feeling as the film progresses, Autumn struggles to verbally articulate her own emotions. When she is finally forced to acknowledge her experience of sexual violence and domestic abuse at the Planned Parenthood clinic, she can barely bring herself to speak.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always brings to mind the work of director Andrea Arnold, who has become known, in films like Fish Tank (2009) and American Honey (2016), for her close focus on a single character, typically a teenager, and for her impressionistic cinematography. Hittman is a more restrained director, but she has similar thematic concerns and artistic instincts. Her last feature, Beach Rats (2017), a luminous character study of a closeted teenage boy in Brooklyn, was more visually striking than Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but less dramatically ambitious. Like Arnold, Hittman is deeply interested in conveying the interior experiences of an individual young person through cinematography. In this film, that interest manifests through many long close-ups of Flanigan’s face.
Flanigan’s bravura debut performance echoes Katie Jarvis’ similarly scorching performance in Arnold’s masterpiece Fish Tank. In that film, Jarvis plays Mia, the explosively confrontational daughter of a single mother who becomes infatuated with her mother’s sleazy boyfriend. Though Mia shouts where Autumn sits in silence, they have a lack of self-awareness or self-reflection in common. Mia is utterly incapable of thinking before she acts or speaks; Autumn can plan ahead enough to book a one-way bus ticket. This absence of self-awareness is not a byproduct of teenage flightiness but rather the inevitable result of a world in which the emotions and experiences of teenage girls are not taken seriously.
Anti-abortion activists often discuss the emotional trauma of abortion as a scare tactic to discourage women from terminating pregnancies. Hittman understands that the real trauma for most women who struggle with abortion is not the termination but rather the nightmarish process that Autumn endures of jumping through endless, miserable hoops in a desperate quest to have the procedure. But her film is also interested in untangling how abortion connects to America’s deeper gender neuroses. As much as anti-abortion activists and politicians would like to argue otherwise, America’s restrictive abortion laws do not exist in a vacuum. They reflect and contribute to a culture that does not value the experiences of girls and women, and views their bodies first and foremost as vessels for future pregnancies.
Autumn’s reticence, her desire not to make trouble, and her inability to articulate or even fully understand her own emotions is an inevitable byproduct of the culture that has worked to deny abortion access to millions of women in America. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is technically a film “about” abortion, but it is really a film about the suffocating conditions of American girlhood. Autumn and Skylar accommodate the men who want something from them, from their boss at the supermarket to the young man they meet on the bus who won’t leave them alone, in order to survive. Like a 1950s housewife, Autumn doesn’t allow herself to think too much about what any of this means because if she did, she would realize that her life is unbearable. An abortion is both the only thing Autumn can do and an act of imagination, a willingness to imagine a version of her life that she controls herself. Liberal access to abortion represents a fairer and kinder society, one that values women’s lives and agency—one in which young women like Autumn can learn to live for themselves, instead of merely surviving the aggressions of the men around them.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is now available to stream on demand.