“Don’t you ever wish you were a dude?” teenager Skylar (Talia Ryder) asks her cousin Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) in the latest film from Beach Rats director Eliza Hittman. It’s a resonant question that speaks to the vastly differing experiences of young men and women as explored in Never Rarely Sometimes Always — a film in which women, teenage girls especially, get the raw end of the deal at every level. To be a “dude” would be so much easier.
Things are especially hard for Autumn — 17, living in Pennsylvania, and pregnant. Far from ready for any kind of parental responsibility, she knows abortion is her best option. But it isn’t as simple as that — Hittman’s slow-building film offers a straight-up account of the numerous barriers Autumn needs to get past. Her local fertility clinic is pro-life. Pennsylvania law means she needs parental consent for an abortion. And finding the resources to venture to New York, where the same rules don’t apply, brings a host of other complications.
Eliza Hittman creates an empathetic, humanistic portrait of Autumn’s hardships.
But for all the problems standing in Autumn’s way, there are the women who offer solidarity — from Skylar, who travels with Autumn to New York while literally carrying her baggage, to the genuinely caring staff at the abortion clinic there. These helping hands are welcome relief in a drama that is largely tough by necessity. There are upsetting scenes of self-harm, while an alliance with carefree Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), New York-bound for very different reasons, becomes increasingly uneasy. The final half-hour ratchets up the tension as the girls’ cash — and subsequently their options — dwindle. It is, in many ways, a social horror story.
It’s Hittman’s choices as both writer and director that make it so effective — conjuring the overwhelming intensity and pervasive threat of the big city, and having her characters speak in naturalistic, monosyllabic conversations rather than verbose movie teen-speak. Best of all is the film’s centre-piece sequence: a five-minute unbroken take as Autumn is asked a series of mandatory questions about her sexual history at the abortion clinic, where the answer options (the “never”, “rarely”, “sometimes”, “always” of the title) reveal yet more difficulties in her past. Flanigan’s performance completely commands the screen, the camera never cutting away.
Through it all, Hittman creates an empathetic, humanistic portrait of Autumn’s hardships. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is transparent in its depiction of the system that hinders just as much as it helps, the privilege of men who are just as culpable but conspicuously absent, and the relationships between women that prove necessary for survival. Every so often, Hittman’s lens settles on Autumn and Skylar holding hands, their pinkie fingers intertwined. It’s a bond that, even under immense strain, won’t be broken.