Never Rarely Sometimes Always has an interesting prelude at a school talent show in which we hear the main character Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) singing a song about coercive love. During the song, a student yells out the word “slut”. That in itself is a form of coercion and violence. Throughout the film Autumn must deal not with such blatant assaults, but with far more subtle fights against a system that can be oppressive to women.
Autumn is a quiet, we might even say brooding, teenager in small town Pennsylvania. She goes to the local women’s clinic for a pregnancy test and learns she is pregnant. This clinic focuses on continuing pregnancies and has an anti-abortion stance. Autumn’s on line research tells her she cannot get an abortion in Pennsylvania without parental consent. She’s unsure what to do. When her cousin and best friend Skylar (Talia Ryder) learns of the situation, she takes charge. They get some money together, pack a suitcase and catch a morning bus to New York City. But when Autumn gets to the clinic in Brooklyn, she learns that they cannot do the procedure there, so she must go to the Manhattan in the morning. Thus begin 2 days and nights of surviving on the streets of New York City (always toting that suitcase along).
Neither of the young women is prepared for this kind of journey, financially, emotionally, or experientially. Skylar is quick to come up with options along the way, but they are never easy. Autumn is trying to hold herself together by going deeper and deeper into herself.
That suitcase I mentioned is a constant presence and a burden—perhaps a bit of a metaphor for what it is like to be pregnant and in need. The people the two encounter along the way are often indifferent, and at times somewhat exploitive. But there are touches of kindness from time to time that remind us of how important such moments can be.
One of those times is when a counselor at the Manhattan clinic goes through questions about Autumn’s sexual history. We may want to stand in judgement of some of her answers (cf., the jerk who yells out during her song), but the softness of the counselor’s response (always, “okay”) leaves us open to accept Autumn’s pain. Our initial judgement may give way to considerations that she is not wanton or irresponsible, but a victim. The story of her pregnancy is never explained, but in reality, her decisions are her own and do not need our approval.
As I watched, I was reminded of a much different abortion-centered film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu. That film also focused on two women on a journey to obtain an abortion. That film was much darker (both visually and in tone). It showed a world in which abortion was prohibited and the back-alley variety was the only option. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, writer/director Eliza Hittman puts the women in search of a legal abortion. The film is visually brighter, but emotionally, it carries the same darkness.
Whereas 4 Months… deals with a society where all abortions were forbidden, Rarely… is set in a world where abortion is legal, but constraints on the availability may make the option of ending a pregnancy a challenge. Such restrictions add to the pain and anguish a woman faces in making such a difficult decision. For many, journeys such as Autumn and Skylar’s become the only available options.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always had a theatrical release this spring, but because of theater closures it moved to a streaming release. It can be rented on Amazon Prime for $19.99.