“You’re going to feel a little pressure.”
This is the response Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) receives from a health clinic counselor when she asks if her abortion is going to hurt. The quiet, unassuming teen has traveled with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) hundreds of miles to New York City from sleepy central Pennsylvania to seek out a procedure that’s mired in bureaucratic and ideological red tape back home, and the words she’s hearing now hang heavy over her entire journey. Writer-director Eliza Hittman dutifully conveys in the startling Never Rarely Sometimes Always that women feel that pressure in their homes, out in the world, and even in the clinics that are supposedly designed to act as safe spaces where they can make their own choices.
Hittman is methodical in the way she uses Autumn’s story to highlight every painstaking detail of the nightmarish ordeal many women in the United States must go through in order to terminate a pregnancy. Her camera is locked to Autumn’s viewpoint, unassuming and devoid of any unneeded flourish. Both narratively and stylistically, there’s nothing openly virulent in the way she presents Autumn’s struggle; she bluntly recognizes the inherent cruelty of the banality of women’s healthcare and lets you fill in the blanks. When Autumn first arrives in New York, she is told she will have to go to a clinic different from the one she planned because the care facility she visited back home lied about how far along she was. The implication of that treachery is more than enough to make the audience feel that the aforementioned pressure as deeply as Autumn.
The tragic irony of her struggle lies in the way men consistently threaten and undermine her very existence while they face none of the consequences for their sexual fantasies. Meanwhile Autumn faces the weight of male entitlement in every waking moment of her life; she watches men leer at her and the women around her, turning their bodies into objects they do not control. The trip to New York only amplifies the terror; the bustling energy of this new world is rife with men waiting to take advantage of her and Skylar. In some horrifying cases, they have to let the monster of patriarchy consume them to survive. Yet, all the while, they carry the burden alone. Hittman makes a point of never showing the man who gets Autumn pregnant. The system and her body have joined forces to make it her torch to bear. The only time this unnamed man is even mentioned comes in the sequence which gives the film its name, where Hittman’s camera remains fixated on Autumn as her abortion counselor asks her deeply personal questions about her relationships and has her reply with never, rarely, sometimes, or always. As the questions get trickier, we finally see Autumn’s resolve deteriorate; it’s clear no one has ever bothered to ask her how men treat her. Except in this rare instance, it seems the healthcare system itself isn’t all that interested either. Flanigan, making her film debut here, sells the moment with a heartbreaking grace that feels emblematic of an entire generation of women struggling under that same pain.
What Hittman captures is the America of the present moment without ever actually saying that’s what she’s doing. We see a young girl, her whole life ahead of her, punished by a system for wanting to make a choice to ensure that future continues unabated. We see a young girl, poor and desperate, having to resort to sleeping on trains and seeking out opportunistic men for money because she had to use all her money for the abortion. We see a young girl and we see the crisis that lies in front of us. The presentation of that emergency in Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always is blunt, restrained, and deeply honest. The film’s unfortunate push to VOD, a consequence of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic we now face, does not dilute the fact that the film is a prolific, essential work for these times. There are sad ironies emerging from this pandemic that the film will remind us that we must address. As the healthcare system faces more pressure than it ever has, we must take steps to ensure women do not fall further down the rabbit hole of indifference and biological punishment. As some states continue to use the coronavirus as an opportunity to control women’s bodies, it’s hard not to imagine many more women will be taking trips like Autumn’s in the coming days. The power of an illuminating film like this is that it can perhaps play a part in convincing us to never allow that journey to happen again.