Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always Focuses On The Power of Girls Through Teen Pregnancy And Abortion
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Throughout almost the entirety of Eliza Hittman’s Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, Autumn and Skylar are forced to lug around a suitcase. It is huge, clunky, difficult to carry. They struggle with it constantly, and yet you never see them really ruminate on it; in no moment do they even consider letting it go. The handle breaks off at one point, and Skylar just takes a second to register it before picking it up with nothing more than a short huff. They have to carry it, so they do.
This suitcase is just one small physicalization of the way that the characters take the difficult, sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles that they face and carry on in spite of them, compartmentalizing pain and carrying it around in order to survive. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is seventeen and pregnant, living in rural Pennsylvania. She is working class, severely lacking in social support aside from her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), and very short on options. We never really learn the circumstances of her pregnancy, but what we do know is that she wants an abortion. This is something that she never remotely wavers on- even when she goes to the pro-life clinic in her town and they show her an anti-abortion video, she immediately goes home and googles the nearest clinic where she can have the procedure done. After a difficult to watch sequence of self-induced abortion attempts, she and her cousin decide to steal some money from the grocery store that they work at and take the train to New York, the closest place that she can have the procedure done as a minor without parental consent.
So many stories of teenage pregnancy and abortion play like soap operas, fraught with drama, internal and external turmoil, conflict, and tears. And of course, that is how they feel in real life sometimes. But there is something valuable in seeing a teenager who has no doubt in her mind about her decision (“I’m not ready to be a mother,” she says on multiple occasions) and, even when she is unsure of how to do it, takes control and pushes through with laser sharp determination and self-ownership.
Of course, the girls’ plight is filled with conflict and obstacles, but it is less hyper-dramatic and more hyper-realistic, as even before we find out that Autumn is pregnant, we see some of the misogyny that simply makes up the daily lives of the girls. A boy ruins Autumn’s talent show performance by calling her a slut, an older male customer relentlessly hits on Skylar at the grocery store despite her clear discomfort. And once they leave and travel to New York, the danger only continues. Their interactions with a boy a little older than them (Theodore Pellerin) is a perfect, cringe-inducing depiction of the way that even without overt spoken threats or come-ons, men can make simply existing in public spaces fearsome and stomach-turning. When they first meet on the bus, he keeps talking to Skylar despite her clipped, unenthusiastic responses. He muses about New York, “You’re forced to interact with people who are nothing like you.” “Kind of like this bus,” she replies with a weak smile. He calls her remark “funny” and continues until she gives him her number. Does his behavior indicate a lack of self- awareness and empathy, or does he see her responses for what they are and simply not care? Both? Regardless, it is a painfully accurate representation of the way that women have to fend off men because they see themselves entitled to women’s time, attention, space, and, of course, their bodies. Skylar’s later acquiescence to him so that she can use him for what she and Autumn need is not empowering and cool, but the sad reality of what women must sometimes endure and sacrifice in order to survive.
This realism is what makes the movie spellbinding despite the lack of operatics. Supported by the intimate cinematography of Helene Louvart, the script and performances never ring false for even a moment. In contrast to so much of American cinema that relies on constant action and rapid-fire dialogue, the film is not uncomfortable with silence, using it to let the performances of the actors shine. Skylar and Autumn sit on the train; Autumn takes time before responding to a doctor’s questions. These are not filler moments, but filled with meaning and emotion, as valuable as any of the actual dialogue. Autumn in particular seems to be quiet by nature, and rather than framing this as a negative that she grows out of, she is allowed to simply be as she is. While we receive lots from her due to Flanigan’s excellent performance, the character’s privacy is respected; her silence is sometimes even her power.
This silence extends, in part, to the events that led Autumn to where she is. The most that she ever says about her experience is when a staff member at Planned Parenthood asks her questions, the scene that gives the film its name. She does not want to answer all of the questions, and that’s ok- despite the fact that we are in the dark on some details, it is the most emotionally devastating scene of the film. We watch as she is asked to acknowledge things she has not yet come to terms with, and seeing that hurts just as much as knowing the specifics. Rather than taking away, the silence and words left unsaid only serve to communicate her pain and the direness of her needs; the film respectfully communicates trauma without crossing over into trauma porn. Similarly, the film uses naturalism to put the fight for reproductive health care front and center without making it a didactic “message piece” of sorts. The tragedy of Autumn’s circumstances and the infuriating blockades that come with trying to access reproductive health care are always clear and present without being pointed, rather they are simply as clear as they are in real life to anyone who has had to deal with them. Simultaneously, the film’s realistic, heavily researched portrayal of Planned Parenthood makes an extremely effective, informative case for the organization without feeling like an infomercial.
Instead, what is actively put front and center thematically is the determination of the two girls in pushing through those obstacles. Visually, there is a recurring focus on women and girls holding each other: a woman holds Autumn’s hands at the clinic, Autumn links fingers with Skylar to show support. While not every woman in the film is a force for good, it is female bonds and strength that carry the girls through. Despite the sadness that the film is drenched in, it is ultimately a story of personal perseverance and the sheer power of teenage girls. By the end, the film is not inspirational in the upbeat, celebratory way one might expect; it might even be a stretch to say that Autumn feels hopeful. But as she sits on the bus, resting her head on the window and closing her eyes, you feel that, at the very least, a tremendous weight has been lifted. She has made her own peace.