In the recently released Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the four-word title represents the multiple-choice options to questions asked by an abortion clinic counselor, including: “Has a sexual partner ever forced sexual activity or violence?” In the titular scene, Autumn — played by Sidney Flanigan in her acting debut — struggles to answer, visibly triggered by dark memories.
Autumn, the protagonist, is faced with an unwanted pregnancy and limited options for health care in her small Pennsylvania town. At 17 years old, she needs parental consent to get an abortion, but that's a conversation she’s not ready to have with her overburdened mother. The origin of Autumn’s pregnancy is chillingly ambiguous, and we never learn who the father is. It’s Autumn’s cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) who steps up in support. Concerned for her cousin’s future, Skylar steals cash from the grocery store where she works after school, and after a quick Google search on where to get an abortion under the age of 18, the girls pack a suitcase and board a bus for New York City.
Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s latest film is a hyperrealistic coming-of-age narrative that offers a precise look into the often-dangerous quest for a safe and legal abortion. The filmmaker’s portrayal of teenage pregnancy is unflinching and deeply empathetic, providing an essential look at the risks women take for reproductive health care.
Hittman doesn’t gloss over Autumn’s unsavory traits or try to dress up the character in the typical tropes about abortion. Autumn is reserved, withdrawn. Overwhelmed with the weight of her pregnancy, she is realistically cold and resigned. In one harrowing scene, Autumn repeatedly punches herself in the stomach, her desperation more evident with each blow.
“It's not a melodrama,” Hittman tells Teen Vogue. “It’s a story of a character who is dealing with a very painful, lonely situation. And part of why she's so reserved has to do with how we aren’t given the tools to talk about these issues.”
Autumn’s taciturn nature is counteracted by Skylar’s, which is comparatively gregarious, but the story is light on dialogue. Hittman doesn’t rest on verbose monologues in the mirror or quippy back-and-forth banter to develop character. The unhurried nature of the film advances Autumn and Skylar’s relationship in the subtext.
"It's really hard for people to understand the conversation between parents and teenagers," Ryder says about why a lot of young teens don't feel comfortable going to their parents about seeking an abortion. "As you can see, it's really dangerous when that door is not open and they can't go to their parents."
The even, steady pace feels painfully slow at times, reflecting Autumn’s own anticipation. Though few words of affirmation are ever exchanged — even “thank you” is rare — deep care is revealed in subtle actions: a tender shared glance as the girls take turns carrying a heavy suitcase, a scene of Skylar swiping liquid concealer under Autumn’s eyes, moments of comfortable silence on busses and subways and sitting in waiting rooms. The camera's gaze rarely shifts away from the duo.
Hittman worked with Planned Parenthood to make sure that the details were factually correct, and even filmed in the agency’s clinics. Her attention to accuracy is scrupulous. Over the multiday saga, Autumn is passed along to three different clinics: a Pennsylvania crisis center masquerading as a health clinic, where she is shown a graphic anti-abortion video, and two Planned Parenthood centers, where she’s told her late-term procedure will require one day to open the cervix and a second day for the operation.
In other movies of teenagers adventuring to New York for the first time, skyscrapers and urban lights romanticize the experience. Instead, Autumn and Skylar are indifferent to the city. Much of the film takes place in the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal, a safe haven for the girls, who have nowhere else to go. With the exception of one diversion to Chinatown, where they get to be teenagers at an arcade for a few hours, their trip is a sleep-deprived series of transit woes and appointment logistics.
“It's the complete opposite. It's this antagonizing monstrosity of a nightmare,” Sidney tells Teen Vogue. “They're trying to navigate this really scary place, and it's just gray and cold and everyone is threatening.”
Ambient sexism and misogyny are the adversaries in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. There seems to be an endless supply of intrusive interactions with men, from the creepy but less egregious harassment the girls receive from their boss at the grocery store — he kisses their hands under a partition at the end of the night as they turn in their cash — to the overt: a man masturbating on the subway as he stares directly at them. As opposed to the traditional hero’s story, in which there is a clear antagonist, Hittman creates antagonists, plural, out of many men who walk the spectrum of harassment and abuse.
Hittman says she wanted to construct a lifelike and perpetuating male stare. “I wanted to create an antagonistic energy around them at all times,” she explains. “Because I think when you're a young woman, you begin to feel it and realize it, and they're in a moment of heightened awareness.”
But defying traditional narrative means an unconventional story arc. While the film builds up to Autumn’s operation, there is no clear climax. The direction feels more akin to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood with its leisurely, meandering stride.
One gets a sense while watching Never Rarely Sometimes Always that the film has nothing to prove. It merely offers a window into the experience of an unexpected pregnancy. Hittman portrays a common plight, one that is not so dramatic, but more so resembles the glum and daunting reality of seeking a safe and legal abortion, one that is present today as more and more states take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten abortion laws.
"I kind of worry that a lot of people, with everything going on, will want something a little lighter, but I really hope that people take the time," Ryder shares. "Abortion is certainly an essential medical procedure. We need to see the humans behind the story. These girls are people and deserve to be listened to."
Sidney says young people should not have to risk arduous journeys in order to receive reproductive care. “They shouldn't have to go through this traumatizing situation to have access to health care,” she says. “You know, it's really sad, and I just really want there to be less of a stigma around it.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue