Imagine being faced with a medical crisis with no one to turn to for help. It’s a sad reality for so many Americans, and especially for women trying to obtain an abortion. Writer and director Eliza Hittman portrays this struggle in her devastating film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which follows Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old from a small town in Pennsylvania who discovers she is pregnant and wants an abortion.
So much of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is so real, and so terrifying. Autumn goes to the women’s clinic in her hometown to verify her suspicions that she’s pregnant, and all the doctor does is have her take a store-bought pregnancy test. When Autumn asks what her options are, the doctor mentions looking for a family to adopt her baby; when Autumn asks about an abortion instead, the doctor plays her an anti-abortion video.
Autumn doesn’t want to tell her parents what’s going on, and she discovers she can’t get an abortion in Pennsylvania without parental consent. She tries to get rid of the baby herself, but that doesn’t work either. Fortunately, she has a great friend and confidante in her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). Skylar steals some cash from the grocery store they work at, and together they hop on a bus to New York City, so Autumn can get her abortion there.
But the horrors don’t end there. Throughout the film, Hittman makes it abundantly clear through the aggressions they experience, big and small, that these two young women are smart, but they are still living in a man’s world. On the bus ride, Skylar is pursued by Jasper (Theodore Pellerin), a young man who tries to convince the girls to meet up with him in the city. The pair lack the funds to stay in a hotel, so when their trip stretches longer than they expected, they have to spend the night wandering the city, riding the subway with creepy men and jumping from one location to the next. At the clinic, it’s quickly becomes apparent that the process of getting an abortion is a much more involved one than Autumn realized; not only that, but the doctor in her hometown was off by eight weeks in her estimation of how far along Autumn’s pregnancy was.
There’s something very natural about Hittman’s direction throughout the film, and her story is brimming with empathy. She authentically captures the conservatism of Autumn’s hometown in the short time the story is set there at the start of the film. The scenes in which the girls wander the city blur together with an almost disorienting effect, while the scenes in the clinic are very deliberate and character-focused. It’s these scenes that are the highlight of the film, as Hittman walks us through the process from start to finish. Hittman lets us learn the most about Autumn as she completes a questionnaire with the clinic’s counselor (Kelly Chapman) about her medical history and relationships. The camera remains close on Autumn’s face as she answers the counselor’s questions with the response of never, rarely, sometimes, or always, and it’s here that Flanigan proves what a brilliant actress she is. She makes Autumn initially casually and aloof, but as their conversation progresses and we realize that Autumn has suffered some mental and physical abuse from men in her life, she gradually breaks down.
In fact, it may be hard to believe it, but this is Flanigan’s first acting role, and she delivers one of the best performances of 2020. She has great chemistry with Ryder (also a fantastic actress), whose Skylar comes off as supportive but also perhaps a bit more naïve than Autumn. Their relationship is completely believable as we watch them experience ups and downs throughout the film, and ultimately it is their relationship at the end of the film that is the one that matters.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” ends without giving us all the answers. We aren’t clear on what financial situation her journey has left her in, or what sort of environment she is returning home to. Will she continue to experience abuse? It’s very possible, but amidst all the sadness and fear, Hittman does importantly let Autumn find her moments of joy, specifically in music. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a vital story that shows that not only is it essential for women to be granted the right to choose, but to have information on all their possible choices made available to them.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is available to watch on demand. Runtime: 101 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Media review screener courtesy Focus Features.