Eliza Hittman’s teen abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quietly devastating gem

“Issue movies” are often fraught with editorializing or speechifying (check out any Aaron Sorkin work to see the worst offences). Never Rarely Sometimes Always is not one of those movies. Despite its hot button subject, director Eliza Hittman transcends polemics and melodrama to offer a pair of emotionally precise and exquisitely tender character studies. Honestly, with ample empathy, and without manipulation, this film trusts us to interpret the complicated predicament of its characters – and its naturalistic, dialogue-light restraint is remarkably affecting.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows a 17-year-old girl named Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) who is faced with an unintended pregnancy in a small Pennsylvania town. Prevented from seeking an abortion by her community’s pro-life women’s clinics and the state’s parental consent laws – her homemade attempts to induce a miscarriage are frightening. Fortunately, her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), with whom she works at a grocery store, quickly figures out Autumn’s secret. Slipping some bills from the register into her pocket, she wordlessly agrees to accompany her to New York for an abortion, and they hop on a Greyhound the next morning.

This almost telepathic bond between the morose and introverted Autumn, and the considerably more outgoing Skylar represents the heart and hope of their brave journey. Their lives are not ideal even in the best of circumstances, and the way Hittman’s portrays their challenges, before and during their trip, is terrifying in their mundanity. From their sexually aggressive supermarket manager, to a flirtatious college kid on the bus, to Autumn’s casually misogynistic father – we’re made to feel the pervasive anxiety caused by unwanted male attention at every turn. The fact that none of these moments feel dramatized is what makes them so realistically scary.

And of course, what they’d assumed would be a one-day procedure proves considerably more complicated, forcing them to stay in New York for a couple of nights. Unable to afford a room, we follow them as they sleeplessly wander around an unfamiliar and indifferent city, lugging around a shared suitcase (that serves as a symbol for the burden they’re carrying) up and down subway ramps and through the streets of Manhattan. This film is an odyssey of two lost children trying to navigate poorly chartered territory – emotionally, logistically and medically.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a reference to a counselor’s clinical questions at Planned Parenthood pertaining to a patient’s sexual history. The title is explained in a truly devastating sequence, when she is asked to answer questions such as: “Your partner has refused to wear a condom — never, rarely, sometimes, always? Your partner has made you have sex when you didn’t want to — never, rarely, sometimes, always?” You won’t forget the look on Autumn’s face as her stoicism slowly cracks with each answer. The audience is purposefully unaware of Autumn’s backstory, but her responses hint at why she holds everyone at arm’s length, and why her survival is contingent upon compartmentalizing trauma.

First-time actress Flanigan has a disarming way of parceling out fragments of Autumn’s inner life, only to quickly raise her defenses again as soon as she realizes that she’s doing it. She is phenomenal, as is her co-star Ryder who imports volumes of sympathy, frustration and distress with body language. With an unadorned style that favours intense close-ups, Hitmann plunges viewers into the subjectivity of her protagonists, whose jumble of feelings – dread and confusion, determination and resignation – play out with subtle glances, a squeeze of the hand, or a minute spent applying one another’s makeup in a bathroom. Flanigan and Ryder are able to speechlessly convey not just reactive emotions – but complex decisions, explanations, and assurances – better than pages of dialogue could ever achieve.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always isn’t interested in delivering a ham-fisted message about the trials of teen pregnancy or government threats to overturn right-to-choose legislation. It’s just a painfully real story about two teenage girls and their excruciatingly accurate ordeal. It doesn’t moralize or exaggerate, it simply shows the ungodly number of hoops women have to jump through in order to have autonomy. There are no unnecessary details (even the father is never mentioned), and it honours the gravity of Autumn’s experience without ever sensationalizing it. Never Rarely Sometimes Always will have you weeping for the Autumns of the world, and in awe of their endurance.

Rating: 9/10

Exclusively screening at The Projector from 13 August 2020.