I keep thinking about the suitcase. Skylar (Talia Ryder) packs sweaters and a pair of jeans into an oversized travel bag (oversized, at least, for what is supposed to be a day-long trip). The next morning, Skylar and her cousin, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), wake up when it’s still dark outside to board a bus from their hometown in rural Pennsylvania to New York City. When they get to Manhattan, the cousins take turns carrying the large bag, guarding it, rolling it on the sidewalk, or lugging it up and down steep subway stairs.
The bag is the burden that they carry. The pair has carefully planned a trip (swiping cash from the grocery store where they both work or riding the subway all night to avoid paying for a hotel) to New York so that Autumn can get an abortion without her mom (Sharon Van Etten) and stepdad (Ryan Eggold) knowing, since Pennsylvania requires parental consent for the procedure.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always, from director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats, It Felt Like Love, Buffalo Juggalos), is a poignant and prescient drama that has become particularly timely as states including Texas and Iowa moved to enact abortion bans amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The camera favors emotive close ups, creating intimacy as if the viewer gets a chance to see the world through Autumn’s often solemn, stoic gaze, but also a certain kind of unknowability. Hittman’s script has a reflective quietude about it, marked by only the sparsest of dialogue. The viewer is not exactly privy to Autumn’s thoughts, but we get telling glimpses into her psyche, and gestures that have their own kind of gravitas.
Take the talent show at the film’s opening, for example, where she sings a melancholy take on “He’s Got the Power” from The Exciters, while her classmates sing more poppy, nostalgic tracks from the ’50s and ’60s. As one boy heckles her from the audience, Autumn pauses, then continues singing. It’s a reflection of her resolve, dissonance from her peers, and the myriad ways men harass women in the film, from a male grocery store manager’s insistence on kissing Autumn and Skylar’s hands when they clock out for the day, to touchy subway riders.
There is a naturalness to Never Rarely Sometimes Always, particularly Flanigan and Ryder’s performances. They don’t project the witty aplomb of heroines in many coming-of-age movies. They talk as teenagers might, with Autumn’s cautious determination and Skylar’s nervous, excited energy.
Skylar is the more verbose of the duo, but their conversations are usually pared down to the essential: how to get to New York, stay safe in the city, and actually secure an abortion, despite the many hurdles. For one, when Autumn arrives at a New York Planned Parenthood, she learns that when she first got her ultrasound in Pennsylvania, the clinic lied about how far along she was so as to try to prevent her from being able to carry out the procedure. As a result, she must book with a different Planned Parenthood the following day. Autumn and Skylar are forced to stay longer than they intended, without enough money or a place to sleep.
Hittman’s work is remarkably precise. She does not focus on anything extraneous to the central drama of Autumn’s journey. When the moment comes that Autumn is asked to reflect on her life outside of her immediate journey to obtain an abortion, there’s a scene of catharsis that resonates deeply due in part to Hittman’s clarity and eye for detail.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always chronicles Autumn’s tortuous and convoluted path just to take agency over her body, studying the patience and perseverance that women often need to navigate the world. It’s a film punctuated by waiting, for one appointment or the other, or for the promise of safety. There are, however, brief moments that remind audiences that Autumn and Skylar are just kids—playing arcade games, or enjoying the thrill of an unfamiliar city—and these scenes, provide, at least, glimmers of respite or perhaps windows into what life could be if like if they didn’t have to work so hard for bodily autonomy.
Director: Eliza Hittman
Writer: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder
Release Date: March 13, 2020 (theater); April 3 (VOD)
Isabella Bridie DeLeo is a journalist and critic currently based in Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter.