Eliza Hittman’s third film Never Rarely Sometimes Always provides a rare glimpse into the magical and equally agonizing female adolescence – a time in one’s life that feels as though the world would fall apart at the slightest misstep, and danger lurked around every corner, because it definitely did.
Moments of indecision, vulnerabilities perceived as embarrassing and undesirable, the never-to-be-found self-compassion that define this age-group are explored from a respectful distance through Hittman’s measured, ‘less is more’ brand of filmmaking when a 17-year old introverted high-schooler Autumn decides to travel to New York and terminate an unintended pregnancy with the help of her cousin, co-worker and best friend Skylar.
Autum, played by first timer Sidney Flanigan, a teenager from Central Pennsylvania, learns that she cannot get an abortion at her home state without parental consent and confides this frightening news in her worldly, more outgoing cousin Skylar.
The duo’s subsequent odyssey from rural Pennsylvania to New York is inspired by Ann Rossiter’s seminal work Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The “Abortion Trail” and the Making of a London-Irish Underground, 1980-2000 – detailing the perilous and little known journeys that Irish women took to mainland Britain after being deprived of their right to bodily autonomy.
The film begins with Autumn covering a '60s hit He's Got the Power in a school program where she is heckled by a male student from the audience and brought to silence in mid-song.
We see her eyes well up, brimming with self-doubt, taken aback by the sudden interruption and the unkindness of it, slowly finding courage from somewhere within and finishing the song. Her life is about to take a strange turn; being woefully unprepared for the ensuing events and encounters, she is to soon find out about her pregnancy. But the brief glimpses of courage that she betrays from the get-go would shape her journey through the terrifyingly bright New York City.
And it doesn’t hurt that she has her best friend to lean on. Skylar, the yin to Autumn's yang, is the rock that we all have wished for in a friend during our difficult teen years. The friendship between the cousins is rarely glamorized, their fights are quiet and short-lived, their bursts of anger sudden and inconsequential. No thank-yous, no dramatic falling-outs. The duo mostly communicates through frowns and nods, their life-long friendship having overcome the need of excessive back-and-forths.
Waiting around at Manhattan Port Authority Bus Terminal for successive nights to complete the several days-long procedure, the girls move with a permanent look of dread on their tired, pale faces. The film slowly begins to point an accusatory finger at the omnipresent antagonist: patriarchy.
From the stalkers at the grocery store that the cousins work in to the creepy manager who insists on kissing their hands at the end of every shift, from the man masturbating in New York subway to the boys making obscene gestures at school, from the anti-abortion crowds surrounding the Planned Parenthood facility to Autumn's unnamed abusers, the film highlights how young women must navigate a minefield of sexual abuse every day.
The protagonists find themselves, as many of us have, undergoing a difficult transition from late adolescence to adulthood, learning to acknowledge the bleakness and the powerlessness of their reality, and aspiring to embrace womanhood in a man's world nonetheless.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always has an undeniably strong political message at its core, yet it is never preachy or polemical. At a time when several states around the US are banning abortions, the film makes the unique choice of resisting the temptation to vilify anyone, and invites the audience to empathize with the characters rather than engage in a heated, polarizing conversation. Indie director Hittman's delicate dance with her film's main themes - from abuse against women to solidarity with abortion rights movement, from invaluable female friendship to dismantling patriarchy - is commendable in that her film manages to shine the brightest at its most muted points.
Standing somewhere between Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 while embracing the loneliness of Midnight Cowboy, Hittman’s film steers clear of melodrama, and conveys emotions sparingly in only a handful of moments - Autumn piercing her nose with a safety pin after returning from the clinic in an attempt to reclaim control, the girls naively bringing a ridiculously big strolley to a very brief trip, a brilliant shot of them holding hands while all the lights of the city go out in an almost-surreal moment of extreme distress and heartbreak, Autumn singing a strangely hopeful 60’s song Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying in a Karaoke bar near the end of the film, and so on.