With reproductive rights under siege in the U.S. Supreme Court and legislative bodies across the country, writer-director Eliza Hittman’s intimate story about a Pennsylvania girl’s journey to terminate her pregnancy is urgent viewing. While Roe v. Wade hasn’t been overturned, small freedoms are sacrificed on an almost-daily basis to satisfy a boisterous minority. Never Rarely Sometimes Always—Hittman’s third feature—brilliantly explores the intended consequences of restricting a woman’s right to choose.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old from rural Pennsylvania, believes she is pregnant. She skips school to visit her town’s crisis pregnancy center (CPC), where she is told she’s 10-weeks pregnant. When Autumn reveals she’s not sure how to proceed, the CPC offers her pamphlets on adoption and shows her an anti-abortion video. Autumn begrudgingly reveals the arduous position of being a young woman who no longer wants to be pregnant to her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), the two make a plan for her to get an abortion. Because Pennsylvania does not allow minors to get an abortion without a parent’s permission, they trek to New York City for the procedure.
The naturalistic acting in Never Rarely Sometimes Always splits the difference between art film and documentary, recalling memories of writer-director Chloé Zhao’s exceptional 2018 film, The Rider. Flanigan and Ryder look and act like the nervous, school-age teens they portray. They never question their goal, but there is a layer of vulnerability surrounding the pair as they make their way through a big, unfamiliar city. There is an impending sense of doom as Autumn and Skylar navigate the subway, the strange boy they meet on the bus (Jasper, played by Théodore Pellerin), and the health-care system.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always never succumbs to poverty porn. Autumn’s family isn’t well off, but this is an ordinary place in Small Town USA, not dissimilar from the one I grew up in. Ted (Ryan Eggold), Autumn’s stepfather, demurely taunts the family dog by calling her a “little slut.” Boys in Autumn’s school mock her for her sexual activity. These passing moments of casual sexism reveal why Autumn would rather seek an abortion on her own than consult her family for help. Autumn’s position isn’t uncommon; sex is demonized to the point where young adults would rather roll the dice than ask an adult for help with birth control or reproductive services.
The movie’s title is a cleverly hidden reference to the multiple-choice questionnaire that social workers ask women for their safety. It’s a breathtaking sequence from the social worker (Kelly Chapman) and Flanigan. Hittman correctly stands aside while her actors take center stage. Cinematography by Hélène Louvart and music from Julia Holter modestly accentuate the drama onscreen. Never Rarely Sometimes Always bagged a special jury prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and deservedly so. Hittman’s exacting vision is the best film of 2020 to date.