There is a scene midway through Eliza Hittman's soul-provoking new movie Never Rarely Sometimes Always that is wrenching in its simplicity. The 17-year-old girl at the center of the film, Autumn (Sidney Flanagan), has come from her home in rural Pennsylvania to New York City to get an abortion.
She and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) have blown through their money while waiting for an appointment at a Planned Parenthood clinic. They are hungry, exhausted, disheveled, emotionally drained. But they are not down. They are unbowed in the face of adversity, lost in the randomness of the Big Apple but inherently knowing the direction their paths will take.
Autumn sits for an intake session with a counselor, in a room the size of a bathroom stall. She is given a series of multiple choice questions to ascertain her readiness to undergo the procedure. She answers the increasingly intimate inquiries with multiple choice answers: never, rarely, sometimes, always. The questions concern her sex life and activities. Then, the questioner asks whether she was ever forced to have sex.
Autumn quietly breaks down in small sobs.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always cannot merely be described as a road movie about a teenage girl seeking a legal abortion. It is not a movie that is polemical in any way or makes overt judgment calls on whether abortion is right or wrong. It is not about Autumn's past - how she got pregnant or by whom - or her future prospects after the abortion.
Instead, this is a movie about inner anguish, about having to make difficult personal choices and the anxiety they cause, about living in a world where no one seems to really care except your cousin. It is Autumn's story, and that is what is so great about it. It is also one of the best movies to date in 2020.
Hittman previously directed two other movies about young people restricted from tending to their needs. In 2017's Beach Rats, she focuses on a closeted young man who is part of the muscle beach culture in Southern California. He fights his own secret battles, much like Autumn.
The director has said in interviews about Never Rarely Sometimes Always that it is about showing the active obstacles in Autumn's way. In Autumn's case, many of them involve the men in her life.
Her father is a blue-collar lout who verbally abuses his daughter and calls her a slut of little regard. Her boss at the supermarket where she and Skylar work sexually harasses the pair, making pains to caress their hands when they reach for their paychecks. In one early scene, Autumn pours a glass of water on a teenage boy who is talking about her in sexual ways in the cafeteria.
Flanagan, who has no prior acting credits outside of this film, is brilliant in the role. Dialogue in the film is minimal, as the camera chooses to focus on her facial expressions depicting weariness and repressed anger as alternating currents. The film is shot documentary style with no background music and grainy stock. The actresses must do the work, speaking in short bursts and never carrying on with long speeches containing detailed personal revelations.
They must do what they set out to do. Autumn cannot support a baby, and her family would kick her out the door if they knew. The laws in Pennsylvania require a parent or guardian to sign approval for a teen to have an abortion, and Autumn tellingly won't get them involved. So they go to New York, where she can have the procedure without a parent present.
The movie does not go to great lengths to make the story overly dramatic or in any way cataclysmic. They meet a boy on the Greyhound to Grand Central Station, and he at first appears a bit nefarious as he suggests taking them out to a club. Outside of his interest in Skylar, he is non-threatening. But like all men in the film, he does want something.
A lot of waiting takes place in the film, as if that is the punishment for wanting to have an abortion. Autumn and Skylar must weave through angry mobs of anti-abortion protesters to reach the clinic doors. They are told they must wait a day or two and do not have the funds to eat or find a place to sleep. So they camp out in subways, hoping to catch shut-eye when not being hounded by ogling men; they sit in bus rest stops, only to be rousted for loitering.
They are constantly moving, even though they are tired, getting on each others' nerves and in need of shelter. Ryder, who plays Autumn's cousin, is her support, with her soft features belying the fire underneath that keeps Autumn from sinking into depression. We may see more of Ryder soon -- she has been cast to play the female lead in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is unlike other recent movies on a similar theme. Some compare it to the 2007 Romanian festival hit 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, where a young woman must undergo an illegal abortion because she is too far along in her pregnancy. That film, directed by Christian Mungiu, is more male-centric, focusing on the harrowing situation instead of the females involved. Hittman's film is all about the characters' reactions and relationship to a world where they are lonely and unwanted.
I just happened to see Not Wanted, a 1949 film about another pregnant teenager who has a fling with an unfeeling jazz musician and must enter a home for unwed mothers to have her child. That film, co-directed by Ida Lupino, is hallucinatory and jarring, showing the actual birth with quick-cut images that reveal the horror the woman must go through alone. It could book-end this modern film.
I'll end this review with the movie's opening. Autumn sings at a high-school talent show, where other performers wear 1950s letter sweaters or dance like they are on Lawrence Welk. Autumn is dressed in a pink satin bomber jacket with glossy eye shadow, a semi-outcast that shows her uniqueness. To the razzes of some in the crowd, she sings a soft, earnest version of a 1962 song from girl group The Exciters called "He's Got the Power."
"He makes me do things I don't wanna do," Autumn cries out in song.
We never learn more about what caused Autumn's pregnancy. But we do know that her world has forced her to do things she had no intention of ever doing. And the audience is better for it.