I’m not even going to pretend that I understand what it is to be a woman in today’s world, existing within an environment plagued with sexist and misogynistic comments. And i’m certainly not going to extend that thought process pertaining to how a woman must feel when she chooses to abort her pregnancy. But, for what it’s worth, writer/director Eliza Hitmann transported me and immersed me entirely in this uncomfortable reality in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a powerful, emotionally draining film that seems to purposely want to evoke the strong reactions – whether supportive or not – it’s likely to receive.
The story it navigates is relatively simple but nonetheless difficult, focusing on 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a visibly withdrawn young girl who learns she’s pregnant and immediately seeks the means to terminate. The laws in Pennsylvania, where she resides, have strict guidelines regarding parental consent when a minor opts to abort, and given that the smallest of family insight suggests this news won’t come with an understanding undercurrent, she moves her attention to New York City where her age won’t prove an issue.
Gathering whatever funds she can manage, Autumn heads to the big apple – her supportive cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), in tow – stumbling her way through a series of obstacles that extend the trip longer than anticipated. If it sounds a bit light, almost potentially situational, from a surface level it is, but Hitmann so expertly navigates the narrative that no moment feels emotionally manipulative, rather aggressively organic. Abortion is such a charged topic that to make light of it in any way would be wholly misguided, and I imagine there’ll be many audiences that will refuse to see the film off its plot description alone, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always grounds itself so masterfully that it becomes less about the taboo topic at hand and more about Autumn’s awareness.
Hitmann is never afraid to make us as an audience feel uncomfortable – Autumn’s attempt at a self-diagnosed abortion is arguably one of the most unnerving and heartbreaking scenes put to screen – and her choice to film everything in an intimate, almost claustrophobic manner means, at times, what we’re watching feels like a documentative intrusion. The film wisely foregoes exposition, keeping a lot of the dialogue or interactions to a minimum, instead allowing the expressive Flanigan to convey her process through the simplest of looks. It’s a raw, honest performance, one that makes you so desperately want to burst through the screen and cradle her, assuring her that everything is going to be alright.
The one scene that speaks the most to this is a middle act sequence where Autumn is laid emotionally bare as she answers a series of questions in the lead-up to the termination process itself. Not only does it directly reference the film’s title, but it gives us a more brutal insight into the damaging troubles that have clearly plagued Autumn, and Flanigan’s quiet performance gradually unleashes years of torment and insecurity that we can’t escape from. Certain backstory specifics that some audience members may click to become more suggestive as the doctor, almost unintentionally, psychologically wrenches Autumn, revealing little more than a sad, lonely girl who so obviously deserves a more nurturing environment.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is one of those films where there’s just so much to unpack that a review such as this feels like it doesn’t do it justice. This isn’t remotely pleasant viewing though, and there’ll be many audiences who will flat out hate the film, either off its subject matter or the realistic way it approaches its narrative – this isn’t a film of exciting vignettes – but when so many films aim for safe, something such as this warrants respect for handling its topic with the complex realism it deserves.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is screening in select Australian cinemas from October 29th 2020.