Quiet desperation: ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

By Anwen Crawford
Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama is marked by the emotional solidarity of its teen protagonists

Sidney Flanigan as Autumn and Talia Ryder as Skylar. Image © Focus Features

The scene that gives Never Rarely Sometimes Always its title comes about halfway through the film. Seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is sitting in the counsellor’s office of a Planned Parenthood clinic, in New York City.

Autumn is seeking an abortion, but before that can take place, she has to answer a series of questions (“they can be really personal,” warns the counsellor) regarding her emotional state. The camera stays on Flanigan, her back to the blue-grey office wall, as she struggles to answer these questions – has a partner ever made her fear for her safety, has she ever been forced into a sexual act – within the parameters given: “never”, “rarely”, “sometimes” or “always”.

The interview is not designed to be intrusive; the clinic has its patients’ wellbeing at heart. But in the attempt to quantify safety, what the standardised procedure reveals is the outlines – and only the outlines – of a complicated history that this young woman is living through. And the point is that Autumn could be any woman: any woman’s history is specific.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is writer-director Eliza Hittman’s third feature film. All three have featured a teenage protagonist flailing in the water of ordinary life. It Felt Like Love (2014) captured the interlinked boredom and peril of a teenage girl’s summertime quest to lose her virginity. Beach Rats (2017) observed the risks taken by a teenage boy who actively seeks sex with older men but won’t reveal his sexual preference to his friends. Both these films were set in the outer reaches of Brooklyn; Hittman, who was raised in Flatbush, has a great eye for the visual surreality of suburbia, and a feel for the quiet desperation of young lives lived on the perimeter of a big city. Manhattan might be only a subway ride away, but imaginatively, for these teens, it’s as distant as the moon.

Hittman’s new film begins further away from New York, but eventually brings us to the centre of it. Autumn and her best friend, cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), live in small-town Pennsylvania, where they both attend high school and work casual shifts at the local supermarket. Autumn is already pregnant when the narrative begins, and, in what is effectively the film’s prologue, the obstacles between her and a safe abortion are made apparent. The local women’s clinic is run by anti-abortion activists, and state law mandates that a minor can only obtain an abortion with parental consent, and even then, only in the case of rape or incest.

But these aren’t the only hurdles that the cousins must navigate. “Don’t you ever just wish you were a dude?” Skylar asks Autumn in the locker room of the supermarket, after the pair have been routinely harassed by another employee. We know that no #MeToo moment is coming to illuminate their workplace indignities. Both Flanigan and Ryder, in their first screen roles, convey a blend of weariness and vitality particular to teenage girls coming into their young womanhood.

Although, on the surface, Autumn is the tougher character – she pierces her own nose, and wears black nail polish – we come to realise over the course of events that doe-eyed Skylar is the fearless one. It’s she who figures out a way to get to New York – where Autumn will, in theory, be able to get an abortion without her parents’ permission – and she who quietly prevents the pair from falling to pieces as they navigate both the city and its medical bureaucracy.

This stretch of the film is itchy with anxiety, and not just because of the dramatic stakes. Hittman and her cinematographer, Hélène Louvart, who also shot Beach Rats, are relentless in their use of interiors and close-ups, making New York into a claustrophobic warren that is far from the glamorous composite more often seen in North American cinema. Here are no aerial shots of the Brooklyn Bridge, and no glittering skyline, no charming Central Park. Instead, there’s the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the din of subway platforms, the inside of a tenpin bowling alley, the Planned Parenthood clinic. Everything is painted in unlovely colours and lit by fluorescent light.

“The story is really about the active crisis of [Autumn] trying to get to New York,” said Hittman, earlier this year, after Never Rarely Sometimes Always had been awarded the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. We never find out – not even during Autumn’s crucial intake interview with the abortion counsellor – the details of her backstory, or who has gotten her pregnant. This is a film of minor events that all revolve around a major fact – an unwanted pregnancy – and Hittman’s decision, as screenwriter, to shift the focus from the who and what of a young woman’s sexual history to the how of her abortion feels right, and revelatory, in an understated way. Autumn and Skylar maintain a kind of privacy, even in circumstances that make them materially vulnerable, and when Autumn, in particular, is subject to all sorts of scrutiny. 

For this, among other reasons, the film is not desolate. What Autumn and Skylar give to each other is a practical as well as an emotional solidarity. The same could be said of the purpose of an abortion clinic.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

Sidney Flanigan as Autumn and Talia Ryder as Skylar. Image © Focus Features

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