March 12, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Eliza Hittman
Culture Representation: Taking place in rural Pennsylvania and New York City, the dramatic film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” about a 17-year-old who gets an abortion, has a predominantly white cast with some representation of African Americans.
Culture Clash: The teenager seeking the abortion doesn’t want to tell her parents, so she travels from her native Pennsylvania to New York, where adult permission isn’t required to get an abortion.
Culture Audience: “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will appeal mostly to people who like well-written, well-acted independent films and are concerned about reproductive rights.
When viewers first see 17-year-old Autumn Gallagher (played by Sidney Flanigan) in the dramatic film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” she’s performing at a talent show at her high school in rural Pennsylvania. She’s on stage by herself, singing and playing an original song on acoustic guitar, with lyrics that include “He’s got the power of love me” and “He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” During her somewhat nervous performance, a guy around her same age shouts from the audience, “Slut!” She pauses briefly, with shock and embarrassment flashing across her face, and then continues the performance.
After the show, Autumn is eating at a local diner with her family—her mother (played by Sharon Van Etten), her stepfather (played by Ryan Eggold) and Autumn’s cousin/best friend/schoolmate Skylar (played by Talia Ryder). The conversation is tense, since Autumn and her stepfather do not get along, and her mother has to urge him to tell Autumn that she did a good job at the talent show.
Meanwhile, the same guy who rudely heckled her at the talent show is eating at a nearby table with some friends. He makes a sexually obscene gesture to Autumn. And she walks over to the table and throws a glass of water on him without saying a word before she leaves.
The quiet way that Autumn handles this problem is consistent with her personality, which is introverted and sometimes sullen. And when she finds out that she’s pregnant (the pregnancy is unplanned and unwanted), it’s no surprise that she wants to keep the pregnancy secret from her parents and she wants to get an abortion. Although it’s not explicitly stated in the film, it’s implied that the guy who heckled her is the father of her child. Whatever relationship she had with the guy, it has clearly ended.
Autumn finds out she’s pregnant by going to a “pregnancy crisis center,” and notices something odd: The woman who gives her the pregnancy test is using a test that can be bought at a drugstore. The female worker also discourages Autumn from getting an abortion and tells her about her options for having the baby. Autumn won’t find out until later that this place is not a real medical clinic, but a facility affiliated with a pro-life group.
When she goes to a real clinic, Autumn thinks she’s 10 weeks pregnant, based on what she was told at the “pregnancy crisis center.” But she’s gets a harsh shock when she finds out that she’s actually 18 weeks pregnant. It takes a while for it to sink in to Autumn that the “pregnancy crisis center” mostly likely intentionally deceived her about her pregnancy term, so that if she decided to terminate the pregnancy, there would be a possibility that she would wait until it was too late to get a legal abortion.
After finding out about the pregnancy, Autumn becomes distracted and more emotionally withdrawn. Skylar notices right away that something is wrong, and so Autumn confides in her about being pregnant. Autumn has done her research on the Internet and found out that because she is under 18, she can’t get a legal abortion in Pennsylvania without signed permission from her parents. New York is the closest state to her where minors can get an abortion without needing adult permission, but Autumn doesn’t have the money to the take the trip and to get the abortion.
Autumn and Skylar work together as cashiers in a supermarket, where they are being sexually harassed by an unseen male supervisor. Every time they hand in their cash register’s money through a window at the end of their shift, the supervisor creepily kisses their hands, and the girls cringe in disgust. It’s perhaps why Skylar impulsively and somewhat gleefully steals some of the cash-register money one day to help pay for their bus trip to New York.
But when Autumn and Skylar get to New York City, what they thought would be a one-day trip has to be extended to two days, because New York state law requires a two-day process for abortions. Autumn and Skylar have to find an place to stay overnight that they can afford. Meanwhile, Autumn has insurance through her parents, but she doesn’t want the abortion to appear on their insurance records. So she has to pay for the abortion herself, which doesn’t leave enough money for the bus trip back home.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (written and directed by Eliza Hittman) takes viewers on a harrowing and poignant journey that avoids a lot of clichés about unplanned teen pregnancies. No one gets hysterical in the movie, and there’s no sympathetic adult who swoops in to help Autumn with her problem. Autumn’s quiet desperation is shown in heartbreaking moments, such as when she repeatedly punches her abdomen to try to induce a miscarriage. (Her bruises are seen when she gets an ultrasound at a real clinic.)
And in the movie’s most powerful scene (which inspired the film’s title), at the clinic in New York, Autumn is asked a series of questions about her personal life. The multiple choice answers are “never, rarely, sometimes, always.” Autumn’s emotionally painful reactions reveal some of the trauma that she’s experienced her her life.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” won a Special Grand Jury Award for Neorealism at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and the Silver Bear (second-place award) at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival. The movie’s greatest strength is in not trying to be a story about extraordinary accomplishments (which is often the focus of many dramatic films) but by taking an unflinching look at the everyday turmoil and obstacles that someone like Autumn can face in trying to get a legal abortion for an unwanted pregnancy.
Flanigan and Ryder give utterly realistic performances that also show the importance of their friendship and family bond, which can be considered a bright spot in Autumn’s very bleak situation. And the directorial approach of Hittman is to tell the story in such an intimate way, that viewers will feel like almost like they’re watching from the viewpoint of a hidden camera.
Regardless of how someone might feel about abortion or which laws are in place, the reality of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies isn’t going to go away. The question that the movie puts forth is whether or not people under the age 18 have less rights in choosing when to become parents, and if they should have to go through more indignities and more restrictions to get safe and legal abortions. Autumn’s story is a cautionary tale on what can happen to someone in this situation. The toll that it takes isn’t limited to the person seeking an abortion but can have ripple effects on society at large.
Focus Features will release “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” in select U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.
UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the VOD release of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” to April 3, 2020.