At no point does Autumn (played by Sidney Flanigan), the 17-year-old protagonist of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, ever say the words “I’m pregnant” aloud. Not to her parents, and not to her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who hears her throwing up before work one morning and connects the dots. She certainly doesn’t announce anything to the boy who got her pregnant, an unseen figure who Autumn recognizes will be unhelpful going forward. In Eliza Hittman’s film, so much goes unspoken partly because Autumn is young and introverted, but also because there are so few places for her to turn. This is particularly true in her central Pennsylvania hometown, where—as in many other places in the U.S. today—terminating a pregnancy safely and privately is against the law for someone her age.
“Are you abortion-minded?” That’s the question posed to Autumn at her local crisis pregnancy center, one of many such institutions across the country that exist to counsel women against getting an abortion. When Autumn indicates that she is, she’s shown a crackly videotape designed to persuade her otherwise. Even if she could find a doctor willing to help, Pennsylvania law prohibits girls under 18 from ending a pregnancy without a parent’s permission. So Skylar nabs a handful of $10 bills from the register at the supermarket where she and Autumn work, and the cousins board a New York–bound bus to get to a Planned Parenthood clinic. Hittman documents their journey soberly and artfully in a politically pointed work that never feels like a polemic. And, as the Supreme Court considers a case that could shape the future of abortion in America, it’s a crucial viewing experience.
Hittman’s previous features, 2013’s It Felt Like Love and 2017’s striking Beach Rats, were both set in Brooklyn and focused on similarly guarded teen characters nurturing a secret. In her fledgling career, the director has already excelled at depicting the pressures of young life with blunt naturalism. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is her clearest and most focused work yet—a movie that delivers a message about the cruel barriers pregnant people face when managing their own health without losing sight of the humanity of its central character.
Flanigan and Ryder, both making their feature-film debuts, are an extraordinary pair, communicating volumes of detail through their expressions and body language. Hittman’s screenplay is light on unnecessary exposition, and the bond between the two characters is perfectly understated. Their emotional support for one another is gestured through little physical moments, such as their hands clasping together and one’s head resting on the other’s shoulder. Though Never Rarely Sometimes Always has the structure of a road-trip movie, it lacks the witty banter or high-concept high jinks that usually come along with the genre; Autumn is devoting almost all of her energy to silently keeping herself together.
Road-trip films always see their heroes confronted with obstacles, but here they take only the form of the actual hurdles a young, poor woman would have to surmount to get a safe and private abortion. Autumn can’t afford lodging in New York, but her hopes that her visit will be brief are dashed by labyrinthine rules. Initial scans have to be redone, preparatory procedures that require an overnight stay are ordered, and she and Skylar have to spend the night riding the subway. Though the teens’ dialogue doesn’t contain much exposition, Hittman devotes plenty of screen time to precise, professional explanations from the Planned Parenthood staff. It’s their job to guide Autumn—and the viewer—through the details of why every step of the abortion process takes as long as it does.
This is not a tale about the grim danger of getting an illegal abortion, a topic that has been covered in other great films such as Vera Drake and Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days. Hittman is zeroing in on the mundane and stark realities of America’s legal abortions, where even the medical professionals who are ready and willing to help desperate patients are restricted by laws, access, and funding. If the first half of Never Rarely Sometimes Always is about the severity of Autumn’s life back home, the second half is about the frustrating and knotty bureaucracy she faces when trying to take control of her health independently.
Those two elements come together in the scene that gives the film its title, a questionnaire that a Planned Parenthood professional reads aloud to Autumn in one long, unbroken shot. For more than a dozen questions—whether she’s ever been pressured to have sex without a condom, or have sex when she didn’t want to—she’s given the same prompt over and over: Never, rarely, sometimes, always.
It’s the first time that Autumn is speaking some of these truths aloud. She first answers promptly, then mumbles quietly, then begins to break down—and Hittman’s static camera takes it all in, equally compassionate and direct. The sequence perfectly illustrates why Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an empathetic wonder, a personal story that demonstrates the experience of thousands by tying the viewer to one girl.