Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always burns with social currency. It is a different kind of film about abortion. It is emotionally honest. We sit with young Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) through her decision. The film does not offer an alternative. We do not see how the pregnancy came about. It does not offer any information that conflicts with her right to choose. We do see the weighing outside pressures through her — the large history of sexual abuse, the inability to file an insurance claim without it alerting her parents — the societal construct that is damaging to women looms large over the picture. There is such a heavy sense of foreboding, it can be more easily classified as a suspense or thriller picture, than any other kind. It is simply riveting. As Autumn travels from her Pennsylvanian town to New York, with cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder, truly putting the support in supporting), the film reveals an unsupportive system, one designed against a woman’s right to choose. It’s crushing stuff, and just about the most absorbing, socially conscious work likely to be made all year.
At the heart of Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a great journey framing its women as the heroes. It never doubts them. It never asks any question that would assume they’re going through anything less than personal heroics. Their journey is one of free will, captivating in the traditional sense of the hero’s journey. This one is fundamentally grounded. It honors their characters, their pasts, their unbreakable familial bond. There is a great sense of connectivity. They are on a journey to preserve their lives. It is a true fight for survival. The stakes feel incredibly high at every turn. The camera does the film so many favors, constantly probing, and by turns, exposing the gritty truth of the thing. Hittman gets every shot right without ever manipulating. By showing truth, she earns respect and believability. The author never has to turn on us, because she has shown us the true story the whole time. We’re with her and thoroughly engaged throughout because she has earned our trust, as have her characters. This is the height of believability in filmmaking and it’s a good thing, as the story demands this expert authority.
The title is the kind that sounds clunky in your mouth. Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Bold and contradictory, on its face, it doesn’t tell us nary a thing about the kind of film it’s going to be. That is too bad, really. A film with such gravity should have a title that doubles as a content warning. Beware of great trauma that is about to move you and shake you to the core. It’s the kind of title that reveals itself as a crucial, best moment, in a movie with a lot of profound moments. It’s taken from the abortion questionnaire Autumn is given. She’s asked tough questions and must answer with one of the words from the title. But the gravity of the questions mostly elicits an emotional reaction. We get to experience how brutalized the whole process is on women. It gives the girls every reason to turn around and go home. Bless this movie, it never wavers a single inch, it’s as emotionally tough and resolute in its purposes as any social issues movie ever has been.
The journey around New York is stunning filmmaking. The girls bide their time as the abortion appointment keeps getting set back. The film’s world reveals everything about its characters through small gestures. The journey is underpinned with anxiety during the very first bus ride. A young man is seated opposite the girls. He presses and is able to manipulate Skylar into giving her phone number. But it’s his small gestures, his pining for them to join him downtown, the skeezy constant search for validity from a stranger. There is a key wrongness to so many shots. It feels like these girls, riding the subway systems, could be lifted off and taken away for good at any moment. They always have each other’s back. In the most touching scene, after a big blowout, they fix up each other’s makeup, like putting on war paint, as they preserve their spirits to accomplish the next leg of the hero’s journey. Their framing is remarkably attuned to their feeling and it feels like they’re attached by a bungee cord, with the inevitability of support. Even when they go for some fun at the arcade, there is a weirdness to it, as Autumn plays a rigged game of tic-tac-toe with a live chicken. The game was always rigged against her. She was always going to lose in New York.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always feels like a moment of social apotheosis. The abortion movie can be made from the woman’s perspective and can be carried through to its logical end. It is stunningly original and brave. There is never any feeling it has been made for any market. It feels like it’s only been made to tell the most personal story. The film performs art’s richest function. It is positively crucial that it exists, an uncompromising film that honors pro-choice values as something heroic and deeply worth of a hero’s journey.