She has a little too much glitter on her eyelids. That’s the first thing one might notice about Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan). Then there’s the costume jewelry and the gaudy pink polyester jacket à la Grease. All the usual offenders are accounted for in the small-town talent show where Autumn is performing: an Elvis Presley routine, a barbershop quartet, and one too many dance numbers. However, despite appearances, Autumn’s musical act is markedly different from her fellow classmates. She sings her heart out, an acoustic ballad about love and cruelty, but there’s a heaviness in her presence, suggesting the pleasures of youth have all but left her. Even in the face of hecklers, Autumn projects an uncommon sense of self-possession. She’s not easily shaken. But she’s also 17 and pregnant.
On and off stage, it’s apparent that Autumn leads a lonely life. Consequently, her sluggish pace and sullen demeanor go unnoticed by most everyone in her small world. But not much gets past her ebullient cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who works with Autumn at the grocery store after school. When Autumn gets caught in the bathroom vomiting, Skylar tries to convince their middle-age boss to let them leave a couple hours early. He refuses, rather creepily insisting that he’d miss her. He then forces a kiss on the girl’s hand and sends them back out to finish the work day.
At home, all the usual signs of neglect and emotional abuse present themselves. Blink and you’ll miss Autumn’s do-nothing mother (Sharon Van Etta) wordlessly sliding her daughter a beer as if it were a soda. Even worse is her stepfather (Ryan Eggold), whose main interests involve rolling cigarettes, watching cartoons, and glowering at Autumn. The threat of violence never feels too far away. Accordingly, when Autumn discovers that abortions in her home state of Pennsylvania require parental consent, she’s forced to make other plans.
With no real alternatives, Autumn and Skylar sneak off to New York, a state that allows abortion even into the third trimester. However, their grasp of the state’s abortion law, let alone the country’s healthcare system, is tenuous at best. (As it is for most Americans, to be fair.) With nowhere to stay, and only a clinic address to guide them, the two girls find themselves overwhelmed in their attempts to navigate the city and its institutions.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is writer-director Eliza Hittman’s third feature, and the film’s greatest strength lies in the director’s penchant for restraint. Dialogue is sparse. Instead, Hittman turns to action – a cough-syrup binge, punches to the stomach – to suggest her protagonist’s plight. This more voyeuristic approach, one that certainly owes a debt to Agnès Varda’s Vagabond and Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, makes an argument for director-as-observer. Audiences are let into the immediate lived experience of Autumn, but little more is revealed. Autumn’s interior life and personal history are hers alone. It’s this voyeuristic mode of Hittman’s that ultimately saves Never Rarely Sometimes Maybe from descending into cant.
This is far and away Hittman’s most mature work to date. Her previous films, It Felt Like Love (2014) and Beach Rats (2017), though strong efforts in their own right, often struggle to sustain their narrative trajectories. Critics have been quick to place the blame on the filmmaker’s disconsolate worldview. They’re not exactly wrong – Hitmann’s films are indeed cynical pictures. Yet they are also deeply sensitive, lending a patient ear to some of society’s most vulnerable members. However, when gazing so deeply into her protagonist’s reality, the rest of the players tend to fall away. Her deftness and restraint don’t quite extend to her secondary cast, which occasionally dips into contrivance.
Abortion tourism is hardly a new phenomenon. However, in a post-Trump America, where conservatives now have dominance in the Supreme Court, Never Rarely Sometimes Always comes at a time of supreme urgency. With that in mind, the film’s significance extends beyond its artistic merits. Meticulously executed and researched, the scenes in Planned Parenthood are derived from Hittman’s conversations with social workers and counselors at the clinic. This results in not only powerful onscreen realism but also a radical education on the abortion process. In a reality where Roe v. Wade could be overturned, and the current coronavirus pandemic has proven an opportunity for many pro-life states to limit women’s access to abortion, Never Rarely Sometimes Always feels not only timely but necessary viewing.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is now available to rent from major online platforms.