I’m not sure Never Rarely Sometimes Always will change anyone’s mind about abortion. But as an opportunity to travel a few hundred miles empathically with a pregnant kid, this feature film will sneakily devastate you.
Writer/director Eliza Hittman has said in interviews that she had no intention of making a pro-choice polemic. Rather, she wants viewers to feel what it’s like for a young woman to navigate the convoluted bureaucracy necessary to get a legal abortion in America today. In this, her third feature following It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, Hittman certainly succeeded.
To tell her story, Hittman took a chance with a reluctant first-time actor, Sidney Flanigan. Hittman serendipitously discovered Flanigan through YouTube videos of her musical performances. She then had to persuade Flanigan to temporarily set aside ordinary teen life to star in her film.
Hittman’s eye for talent was spot-on, as Flanigan is superb as Autumn, a 17 year old living in grim, small-town Pennsylvania. Centrally placed in nearly every scene, Flanigan imbues her character with a blunted affect, the full basis for which we only discover near the film’s end. When her defenses come down in the gut punch of a climax, it’s utterly convincing. (Much credit for the emotional force of this sequence must go as well to the editing choice to shoot it in one long take, holding the camera fixedly on Autumn’s face.)
Besides having a gifted editor in Scott Cummings, whose craftsmanship was also seen in this year’s Wendy, Hittman had the wisdom to employ the fine cinematographer Hélène Louvart. In addition to working with the legendary director Agnès Varda, Louvart has plied her trade in recent arthouse favorites Happy as Lazzaro and Invisible Life.
In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Louvart not only communicates the emotional deprivation of living in an economically depressed town, but also how confounding and overstimulating New York City can be for the uninitiated. In short takes of Flanigan walking with her back to us, Louvart conveys her isolation, whether at home or in New York.
Frequent close-ups of Flanigan’s eyes or her face in profile allow us to register Autumn’s reactions. Most notably, we observe this in the relentless, crushing effect of objectifying male attention, whether from a classmate across a busy restaurant, a creep on a late-night subway, or her boss at the supermarket where she works as a cashier.Autumn begins her abortion odyssey in her hometown, with a trip to a crisis pregnancy center. Their shoestring budget comes through in the dollar store pregnancy test they administer and the VHS videotape they pressure her to watch. Their moral agenda comes through in telling Autumn that the fetal heartbeat is “the most magical sound you’ll ever hear.” (Hittman went undercover into crisis pregnancy centers to ensure the authenticity of these scenes; their lack of medical expertise conforms to the content of this takedown by John Oliver two years ago.)
Autumn must then turn to the internet to learn that abortion in Pennsylvania is not permitted for minors without parental consent. With her supportive cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), she buses to Planned Parenthood in New York, where no such restriction exists. Once in New York City, Autumn faces additional unexpected barriers; a 17 year old with limited coping strategies can find out only so much from Google.
Planned Parenthood is presented more favorably than the single-agenda crisis pregnancy center. However non-judgmental they may be, there’s still a degree of rote impersonality to their questioning. And the lack of a mental health safety net for a teen like Autumn, with a neglectful mother and malign stepfather, is implicitly condemned.
As I watched Never Rarely Sometimes Always – the reason for its curious title is one piece of that devastating climax – I was reminded of the Romanian masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. This 2007 work of realist cinema portrayed a college student’s efforts to obtain an abortion illegally during Ceausescu’s dictatorial regime. While the restrictions and criminalization of abortion are not as extreme in America today, it’s disturbing enough that a comparison can be fairly made. In both times and locales, bullying males have curtailed female autonomy, leaving women (and almost-women) to make desperate decisions.
(Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to watch through Apple and Amazon.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )