A pair of teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania travel to New York City to seek out medical help after an unintended pregnancy.
Director Eliza Hittman takes a very deliberate approach in her film Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, one that may tax the patience of some viewers. And yet, the tone and pace she adopts are necessary in dealing with the delicate issue of abortion. Far from being a divisive polemic that takes a definitive stance on the issue, this is a thoughtful look at how current policy surrounding it affects one young woman, a late teen who sees nothing but dead ends down each avenue she might take, trapped through no fault of her own with few options for success.
It seems as though Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) has forgotten what it’s like to be happy. Keeping to herself, she goes through her high school days with her head down, wearing shapeless, drab clothes, engaging with few of her peers. Her job as a checkout person at the local grocery store is a thankless one where she’s constantly sexually harassed by her supervisor. Adding to her woes, she suspects that she’s pregnant, which is confirmed when she visits a family planning clinic, where she’s urged to keep her child or put it up for abortion. This is not an option. A distance has grown between her and her mother since she remarried, her younger siblings getting more attention than she. The only one Autumn can turn to is her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). Reluctantly, the duo sets out from their rundown Pennsylvania hometown to New York City where Autumn can have an abortion without parental consent, a journey that will require these young women to question themselves in numerous, unexpected ways.
One of the most striking things about Hittman’s film is how quiet it is. Long conversations between characters are rare, ambient noise fills the soundtrack but it’s often muted. This proves to be a reflection of how Autumn gets through her days. She must constantly contend with being the object of sexual abuse and in an effort to dull herself to it, she’s retreated emotionally as well as psychologically. She does all she can to play down her modest good looks, never calling attention to herself, her eyes constantly cast down. By necessity she has become a bit player in society, fading into the background, her sense of self and individuality casualties in this world where she’s constantly victimized.
Flanigan’s performance is exceptional and quite difficult. Hampered by her character’s tendency to repress her emotions, she’s required to reveal a great deal by doing very little. Scratching the back for hand, the clearing of her throat or a sideways glance all convey more than what’s being or not being said. Autumn is burdened with great pain and we see her stoic façade give way in a remarkable scene in which she’s asked about her sexual history by a sympathetic counselor. Subtle clues are given as to what this young woman has had to endure and Flanigan’s barely contained show of grief over all she’s lost is a devastating, unforgettable movie moment.
Hittman’s intent is not to come down on one side or another where the abortion issue is concerned, though I suspect supporters on each side of the debate will find elements in the film to support their beliefs. “Never” isn’t concerned about impersonal rhetoric – its intent is to remind the viewer of those caught in the middle of the political divide, those who have no say in how the law may affect their lives. Those who know firsthand that this is not a black-and-white issue, but one filled with grey areas for which there are no cut-and dry answers.