I’ve not seen many films that provide viewers such a fully immersive experience into the life and actions of a character as much as “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” does. Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, this small scale drama with difficult subject matter demands a lot from viewers, but it’s a rewarding (if tough) experience that will open your eyes with an intimate human portrait of a teenage girl struggling to get an abortion.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a typical, if quiet, high school student in rural Pennsylvania. She works as a grocery store cashier and struggles with classmates who bully her supposed promiscuity. Faced with an unintended pregnancy, Autumn seeks help at a local health clinic that pushes adoption and preaches the sins of abortion. The young woman doesn’t want to ruin her life with a baby she cannot care for, and she’s certain she wants to terminate the pregnancy. With nowhere to turn since her home state has strict parental consent laws, Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) scrape up enough cash to buy bus tickets to New York City in search of a Planned Parenthood clinic that can help.
It’s a tale of an arduous journey that two girls share. Burdened with a large suitcase that they must drag everywhere and short on money, they don’t have anywhere to sleep and hang out in unsavory places all day and night. The city is a place neither of them should be because it threatens to swallow them whole, and it’s sickening to think that restrictive abortion laws make many women resort to trips just like this one.
The girls are strong in their own ways, each fighting back against oppressive men in their everyday lives. From the predatory behavior of an older boy (Théodore Pellerin) they meet on the road to their inappropriate boss at work to the creepy vibes given off by Autumn’s stepdad, the two teens are incredibly adept in their ability to put up with the patriarchal crap that so may females face.
The story is a beautiful example of a ride-or-die friendship, with the caring Skylar providing Autumn some sense of a safe space and an anchor to help keep it together. The two actors are sympathetic and authentic in their roles, bringing a real humanity to their characters. Hittman tells their story with very little dialogue, instead focusing on her character’s actions and the smallest details. She doesn’t reveal too much of a backstory either, which invites the audience to step back and avoid being judgmental about Autumn’s very personal choices. It’s the teen’s own body and her own business, after all.
The film is an immersive experience in so many ways, from Hittman’s directorial choices (including a devastating, intense scene of unflinching close-ups where a clinic worker goes through a checklist with Autumn) to cinematographer Hélène Louvart‘s choice to shoot on 16mm film (lending a bleak, grainy look and feel). There’s nothing that doesn’t work here.
Hittman’s small story packs a wallop, offering a deeper perspective of what it truly feels like to be in the shoes of a pregnant teen who is out of options. We take that journey right alongside Autumn, living her life, her truth, and her experience. The story is told in an original, effective manner, and it opens up an opportunity to start a conversation about how women shouldn’t be discouraged or hindered when it comes to taking charge of their own lives and their own bodies. To that end, it left me sad and infuriated about what some women must go through to get a medical procedure, making “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” one of the best and most important female-driven films of the year.