Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is sixteen years old and pregnant. Abortion law in her home state of Pennsylvania prohibits minors from undergoing the procedure without parental consent and the employees at the local women’s clinic are pro-life and unhelpful. With her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), Autumn takes a bus to New York in the hopes of self-autonomously accessing an abortion. So begins Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival ― a tender, observational drama about teenage abortion from Eliza Hittman, who wrote and directed Beach Rats (2017), in which she brought her naturalistic, soulful touch to the tale of a teenage boy coming to grips with his identity.
Dialogue is sparse throughout the film. ‘Self induced abortion,’ Autumn Googles in an early sequence. We cut to a large pile of Vitamin C tablets on the kitchen counter that she consumes all in one go, before she stands in front of her mirror, shirt lifted, and punches herself, hard, all over her stomach area. The next day at work she throws up; Skylar finds her, tries to get Autumn off work early, and then the girls are booking bus tickets. They do not say much to each other. We do not know if there was a conversation about what happened or why they are about to take an interstate trip. Their bus trip is silent, they don’t chat or listen to music or read ― and the only interruption is the boy, Jasper (Théodore Pellerin) who comes to talk Skylar up. The intentionally scant dialogue makes implicit Autumn’s struggles, hinting at her emotions and thoughts, and Hittman yields this silence into revealing the stigma existing around Autumn’s pregnancy and her intended abortion ― it is something she can’t or doesn’t want to fully articulate. She is intensely isolated in her body which is the growing source of her anxieties and fears, as it becomes a lurking shadow over the rest of the film.
When Autumn finally arrives in New York to discover that she is 18 weeks pregnant, and not 10 weeks as the Pennsylvania clinic had determined, it’s a painful moment ― but she remains quiet and the sounds of the everyday around her swell in volume. The subway clangs and screeches, the crowds are overwhelmingly noisy, lines of dialogue overlapping each other. Hittman depicts the clamour of the external environment to amplify Autumn’s inner turmoil and highlights her unsaid suffering. Through Flanigan’s angsty but restrained performance, it is evident that although Autumn’s self-expression is stifled, her discomfort is etched into her experience of the world around her. Having an unwanted pregnancy, dispelling it ― all in secret, is a physical and mental burden she must carry.
While centrally focused on the two teens, Hittman positions male figures on the edge of most scenes, a subtle yet pointed depiction of how they intrude on Autumn and Skylar’s agency as young women at every turn. The presence of men feels dangerous and threatening. There is the icky supermarket manager who smooches Skylar and Autumn’s hands when they hand over the cash packet from the register at the end of their shifts; the father figure at Autumn’s house who stares at her on the couch, lazily drinking a beer while a dog nuzzles his crotch; in New York, it is the late night subway passengers who all happen to be men, one of whom starts to masturbate openly in his suit. While all of these male tropes are disturbingly familiar and most are overtly, inappropriately sexual, Jasper is perhaps the most common, dangerous type. He is young and fresh faced, polite and seemingly nice. The boundaries he might be crossing are murky with his insistent texting and flirting with Skylar, paying for all their drinks, trying to get her alone after bowling and karaoke.
As these figures hover on the periphery of the film’s shots, so too do they hover in our mind’s eye ― such as during a questionnaire Autumn must answer at the women’s health clinic about her sexual experiences. The answers to these questions are the titular “never, rarely, sometimes, or always”. They are personal and inquire into possible acts of non-consensual or unsafe sex that Autumn may have been subject to. She is unable to answer, on the verge of breaking down. This is the most we glean of her inner turmoil. Who, when, what is she thinking of? Who forced her to do what? No answers are ever offered but the list of male characters looms in one’s mind, whose presence becomes more darkly suggestive.
Yet the film offers safe, gentle spaces which are female-centric. The women who inhabit the women’s health clinics in New York are kind and professional. Most of all, Skylar’s companionship is unwavering. She asks Autumn if she is okay, if she is tired, she carries their suitcase most of the time, she accompanies her wordlessly from appointment to appointment. Hittman’s observational and true to life style with minimal dialogue, styling or theatrics, spotlights such spaces of unspoken sisterhood. At times Skylar is a bit bored, or frustrated, such as a notable scene when Autumn tells her to “fuck off” after Skylar asks how they’ll get the money for bus tickets home. There are a lot of other “fuck offs” that apply in this film to creepy men, or the disempowering state healthcare system, but this is different. This one finally pisses the ever-patient Skylar off, but their bond is so strong that of course she doesn’t really fuck off and in fact continues to care for her in unasked-for ways by resorting to more desperate measures for bus money. True intimacy, and especially that forged between closest friends and family may look abrasive at times. Hittman portrays the warmth of this relationship, allowing the moments of both Autumn and Skylar’s self-determination to shine without eradicating the darker truths of what landed them in the situation in the first place. There’s even relief, and joy in their interactions ― giving us a glimpse into their youth: moments of stupid banter, being happily lost in the city, some understanding strangers, and a loyal friend joined to the hip in comfortable silence.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is now showing in Australian cinemas, from October 29 2020.
Michelle Wang writes, dreams and eats in Sydney. That’s pretty much it aside from voraciously consuming most things with subtitles or featuring Adam Driver.