One thing that sets apart stories by men filmmakers from stories by women filmmakers is that female characters from the latter speak their own language, one that transcends the fickleness of words. Those oppressed by the capitalist-patriarchal system are continuously silenced; and because their voice never reaches outside them, they develop a lingua franca unique to their experience. Womanhood has become a high-context culture. I’m reminded of the finale of Big Little Lies’ first season, where the women—and consequently, you as the viewer—just know who Jane’s rapist is just by their exchange of sharp looks; or the first episode of Fleabag’s second season, when Claire is in the bathroom with a miscarriage and Fleabag—and consequently, you as the viewer—just know.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always tells the story of such a woman, and consequently, that same empathy. 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), upon finding out she can’t get an abortion in her own state without parental consent, takes a trip from Pennsylvania to New York with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). It’s emotional without being melodramatic; realist, devoid of any emotionally manipulative inner monologue. The film never leaves Autumn’s side—not even to reveal who the baby’s father is. Her struggle to have a successful abortion—having to go to another state for it, running out of money, being transferred to different clinics and having to come back another day—it’s all familiar, things we know to be true. The storytelling need not be grand if the truth is tragic enough as it is.
It’s a small story with big, big moments. Autumn’s only confidant is Skylar, who, upon piecing together the signs of her cousin’s pregnancy, packs a suitcase, steals money from work, and gets on a bus with her. At home and during their trip, they are surrounded by male entitlement. The unwieldy luggage they tirelessly carried wherever they went—initially a detail director Eliza Hittman put in upon learning that women always overpack when getting abortions out of state—has become symbolic for the burden they had to carry by themselves because they are moving in a world that was not made for them, that always endangers them. And yet they always protect each other as if on instinct: through the touch of a hand, checking on each other in the bathroom, putting on make-up on each other, finding each other’s eyes in a dangerous situation. I wish it wasn’t pain that threaded them together, but it’s a relief to know they’re not alone.
Few words are shared between Autumn and Skylar—our protagonist isn’t particularly warm, not that she needs to be—but their connection is palpable. Hittman told Thrillist that because there is such deep stigma around teenage pregnancy and abortion, she made it a point when writing the script that the two girls could not talk about it, but they understood and supported each other, even in shared silence.
The resolution in this film always came in the form of a woman, culminating in the extensive pre-abortion interview Autumn had in Planned Parenthood. It’s cathartic; even without directly revealing her trauma, we already understood. And we understood that for probably the first time in her life, she was in a safe space.
It’s not hard to see Autumn as lucky to even have a choice, considering the fact that the continued criminalization of abortion in the Philippines has put the lives of many pregnant people at risk, either by having to resort to unsafe abortions or continuing high-risk pregnancies. Those seeking treatment for abortion complications are faced not only with barriers but stigma and abuse.
But regarding these teenage girls who slept on the subway and yielded to inappropriate sexual advances for money as ‘lucky’ all the more exposes the fact that the rights we have now are just bandaid solutions—easily peeled off unless the systemic root is addressed. The agency of bodies that are not cis male remains negotiable, free only within certain conditions.
With the amount of nuance this film requires, no one could have pulled it off like Hittman. Her silences are loaded and purposeful, her camera a thoughtful companion to her reserved protagonists. She was already a master storyteller in her previous feature, 2017’s Beach Rats, but in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, her craft is bolstered by her understanding of the subject. This movie is perfect.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available on digital.