By Chloe Lizotte
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Dir. Eliza Hittman, U.S., Focus Features
During the formal audition process for Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman kept thinking of a “quiet tension” she found in Sidney Flanigan, a Buffalo-based teenage musician whom she met at a wedding a few years earlier. Although the then-14-year-old had never acted before, Hittman trusted her intuition and, hoping that Flanigan’s energy would create the project’s mood, cast her in the lead role. As a director, Hittman never tries to get ahead of her teenage characters; instead, her films emanate outwards from their youthful confusion. And, indeed, the starting point is often a quiet, internalized tension—whether Gina Piersanti as a breakable-seeming middle schooler in It Felt Like Love, or Harris Dickinson as a closeted outer Brooklynite in Beach Rats. The desire to listen, not ventriloquize, is especially valuable when making films about teenagers, in which it’s tempting to overwrite toward a generational stereotype. This seems especially egregious in depictions of Gen-Z—a desperate-to-seem-zeitgeisty language blocks films like Booksmart or American Honey from deeper curiosity about character, time, and place.
With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, her most conventionally plotted story to date, Hittman takes a characteristically experiential approach. All of her films deal bluntly with sexuality and gender; her third follows 17-year-old Autumn (Flanigan) as she travels from small-town Pennsylvania to New York to seek an abortion. Instead of simply juxtaposing Autumn’s conservative hometown with a diverse metropolis, Hittman hews closely to Autumn’s emotional experience of her obstacles. The film is about the factors—geographic, socioeconomic, gendered, and familial—that prevent her from easily having a choice of what to do with her own body. Whether she’s overwhelmed, steely, worn down, or defensive, Autumn struggles with shifting notions of her own autonomy, but out of respect for that process, Hittman also doesn’t rush the character to articulate herself prematurely.
From the first scene, Autumn strikes a self-protective posture: in a retrograde ’50s-themed high-school talent show, she trembles through an acoustic cover of a girl-group track, The Exciters’ “He’s Got the Power,” but rather than yearning for her suitor, her plaintive rendition resounds with the pain of the powerless. This perspective, and her guarded manner of speech, seems a natural response to a threatening climate of masculinity. She works at a grocery store with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), where their unseen supervisor literally slobbers over their hands when they slide the cash from the register through a slot, and she has deep-rooted tension with her volatile stepfather (Ryan Eggold), which throws up a wall between her and her mother (folk musician Sharon Van Etten). Hittman renders most male characters with menacing sexual undertones: Autumn, and the camera in jittery close-up, warily watches her stepfather across the living room as he playfully calls their dog a “little slut”—then insists the dog likes the name when Autumn’s mom scolds him. Hittman never suggests these moments are unusual or isolated, instead leaving us with textural asides that point to something buried.
After quietly appraising her distended belly in her bedroom mirror, Autumn visits her bare-bones health clinic, where, to her surprise, the doctor hands her the same over-the-counter pregnancy test available at the pharmacy. As the facility frames it, there’s only one way for Autumn to consider the plus-sign. Sensing uncertainty, her doctor shows her a scaremongering pro-life video from 1991 called “Hard Truth,” which opens with the blanket statement that “abortion is an act of violence.” She also assures Autumn that she’ll feel that natural pull toward motherhood once she carries a child to term, and, if not, that she could perhaps put the child up for adoption at the end of the process. The film links these philosophies to a pattern of negligence regarding women’s health: the doctor never asks after Autumn’s sexual safety, and when Autumn arrives at Planned Parenthood in New York, she’ll mention that she’s never had a pelvic exam. Her only connection to alternatives—including wildly unsafe ones, like downing massive doses of vitamin C, which she attempts—is Google, where she finds that parental consent is required for abortions in Pennsylvania.
Reteaming with frequent Alice Rohrwacher cinematographer Hélène Louvart after Beach Rats, Hittman begins to visually express Autumn’s internal discord during her first ultrasound: the camera swoops over her hospital bed as she turns away from the monitor, its screen a blur while her face remains in focus. By rejecting a static shot of Autumn as a passive patient, this expressionistic camera elevates Autumn’s reactions over her doctor’s prescriptions, which offsets the typical clinical distance of an exam room. This style also combats a world that asks Autumn—and, by extension, the women around her—to suppress her own suffering, which Hittman evokes through visually intimating the ways she strikes back at her own body: as quotidian as red marks left behind by bra straps, or as extreme as Autumn’s purple-bruised stomach after brutally punching herself to induce a miscarriage. It’s thus fitting that Autumn symbolically rebuffs her ultrasound by reaffirming control over her body—when she gets home, she numbs her nose with ice and pierces it with a safety pin, a defiant non sequitur.
Autumn and Skylar don’t exchange words onscreen when they decide to travel to New York, where parental consent is not required for the procedure: we see Skylar quietly skim some money off the top of her day-end stack, a few web pages displaying bus fares and routes, and the large, unwieldy suitcase that they stuff with supplies. Their mutual resolve is all the more moving because it comes without hand-wringing or stake-planting—the choice is simply the one Autumn feels is right for her, as well as a right that they’re claiming. This isn’t to say that it’s smooth sailing for Autumn from here on out; even the basics of acclimating—swiping a MetroCard, navigating the labyrinthine subway map—create stress. So do a range of procedure-related complications: the Brooklyn Planned Parenthood doctors find that Autumn is 18 weeks pregnant, where the Pennsylvania doctors concluded that she was 10, which means that Autumn will need to seek a second-trimester procedure, which turns out to be a two-day affair. With dwindling cash and no place to stay, Autumn and Skylar confront a cold and indifferent city—they are unceremoniously kicked out of the Port Authority waiting room in the wee hours of the morning by the NYPD, and flee when a flasher boards the subway.
Yet when a Planned Parenthood counselor asks Autumn if she needs shelter, she clams up, not wanting to seem vulnerable: the collateral of her upbringing seems to compound her anxieties. In a lightly surreal tangent, the girls duck into a 24-hour arcade. Autumn plays a tic-tac-toe game, supposedly “against” a live chicken in a cage, and ends up losing to the machine in a dinging final verdict—“THE CHICKEN WINS!!!”—which, however absurd, suggests a reasonless world left to chance, always tilted against Autumn. On night two, though, Skylar and Autumn are forced to roll the dice when they realize they’ve run out of money for return bus tickets. Their only hope for cash is an early-twenty-something EDM musician (Théodore Pellerin) who flirted with an unreceptive Skylar on the bus: to take advantage of his relentless thirstiness doesn’t seem a scrappy solution as much as it is alienating, dispiriting, and, based on his overbearing demeanor, potentially dangerous. While he plants a wet good-bye kiss on Skylar in the bus terminal, Autumn reaches around from the other side of a chunky pillar to clasp Skylar’s hand, a quiet assurance that they’re still together, and the only peer-to-peer solidarity that Autumn can easily trust.
Even as New York suggests a broader world, the crux of the story is not Autumn’s awakening to a varied feast of resources, but her ability to take control of her own self—an internalized conflict that only intensifies as she moves through Planned Parenthood. From STI testing to financial counseling, the protocols at Planned Parenthood hinge on valuing Autumn’s autonomy as a patient—a unifying thread that keeps this tour of their resources from reading as an infomercial—yet this sudden, and businesslike, investment in her mental and physical health overwhelms her. Instead of depicting a single operation closing the door on a fraught chapter in her life, the film seems to initiate a new phase of her personal awareness. This comes to a head in a pivotal counseling session: in an unbroken close-up, Autumn responds to questions about her sexual history with four possible responses: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, or Always. But those words are insufficient for the floodgates opened up by the prompts: Your partner has made you have sex when you didn’t want to: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always. Your partner has refused to wear a condom: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always. As Autumn (and a formidable Flanigan) wobbles, pauses, and lets tears well up, she grasps for answers while the process dredges up compartmentalized memories—but, in a remarkably compassionate and wise move on Hittman’s part, she’s not accountable to the film to air them in any detail beyond these single-word responses. Instead, there’s an uneasy irresolution to Autumn’s private acknowledgment of some repressed past, all before she’s even begun to process it.
“It was kind of whatever,” is how Autumn recaps the operation to Skylar. “Just uncomfortable.” Just before she goes under, Hittman places us in the operating room with her: the camera roves the room, and Autumn sees an IV bag of fluids with her name Sharpied on it, her life condensed into a label. For the sake of protocol, the doctors ask Autumn to state the name of the procedure before the anesthesia kicks in. At the end of this journey, it seems like such a humble request. But in that dissonance, Hittman beautifully illustrates how much is contained within this seemingly straightforward statement.