Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a muted film, low on fat and without a trace of hysteria, but it has at its centre the long-contested battleground of a young woman’s body. When 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) stands in front of the mirror, the camera stares at her exposed midriff in mild wonder. When we next see that belly, it is covered with squiggles of ultrasound gel. The time after that, blotchy bruises are stamped all over it like clouds in a threatening sky. Autumn inflicts that damage herself after an online search for “abortion under 18 Pennsylvania” turns up the words “parental consent required”. With her smart, supportive cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), she sets off one blue morning to take a coach the 200-odd miles to a nondescript New York of concourses, burger joints and bus stations. “This city has a lot of secrets and subterranean levels,” someone says. That goes for Autumn, too.
The trip is an act of quiet bravery in the face of a coercive campaign that begins the moment Autumn sets foot in her local clinic. At her first sonogram, she is told to prepare for “the most magical sound you will ever hear”, though what comes over the speakers suggests a fist frantically punching its way out of a bag. A grandmotherly doctor assures her that any doubts will evaporate once she holds her “beautiful” baby. (That word never sounded so ugly.) Then the woman plays an anti-abortion video, just to clear up any confusion.
Once Autumn and Skylar arrive in New York, the film zeroes in on the mundane details of what it might mean to travel far from home in secret to exercise agency over your own life. Obstacles appear trifling and bureaucratic: Autumn knows her family’s medical insurance will cover the procedure but doesn’t realise that her mother will be sent an itemised bill. Then it transpires she is further along than was first thought, and will need to travel to a different branch of the planned parenthood clinic the following day for the termination. With no money for even the crummiest flophouse, the cousins kill time through the twilight hours, shuffling from Chinese bakery to subway to an all-night arcade where Autumn plays electronic noughts and crosses against a chicken pecking around in an illuminated booth. Is it kinship she feels as she stares at the bird, or envy?
The cinematographer Hélène Louvart works almost exclusively in tight, clammy close-ups, Dardenne brothers-style. In doing so, she and the writer-director Eliza Hittman shift the emphasis from an unjust system on to the women it punishes. Like two other recent films by female directors – Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Kitty Green’s The Assistant – the picture addresses male abuses of power without ceding the dramatic focus to the aggressors themselves and reinforcing their supremacy all over again. The matter of the baby’s paternity, for instance, is never dwelt on or allowed to become a gravitational centre. The father could be any one of the boys who taunt Autumn in the neighbourhood pizzeria. It could even be her own step-father, who jokes about the family pooch’s promiscuity (“Look how easy she is!”) in a way that suggests he isn’t referring to the dog at all.
Evidence of male entitlement is rife. The most extreme example – the businessman on the subway who unzips his trousers as he stares at Autumn – is only at the far end of a spectrum that also includes the middle-aged customer at the supermarket where the cousins work, who misinterprets Skylar’s good manners for a come-on, or the teenage pest who clasps her arm mere seconds after they meet, as though claiming her as chattel.
Hittman’s script fills in the blanks without resorting to anything as prosaic as straightforward exposition. The movie opens on the stage of Autumn’s school, where she stands in a pink bomber jacket and transforms the Exciters’ barnstorming “He’s Got the Power” into a sinister torch song, admitting through its lyrics what she can’t express herself: “He makes me do things I don’t wanna do/He makes me say things I don’t wanna say.”
That method of indirect confession provides a foretaste of the scene that lends the movie its title, in which Autumn is asked before her abortion to respond to a series of statements (such as “Your partner has refused to wear a condom” and “Your partner has threatened or frightened you”) by selecting from four choices: never, rarely, sometimes, always. It’s a devastating episode – shot in an extended take that allows emotion to overwhelm Flanigan’s soulful Sinéad-O’Connor eyes, just as we’ve become accustomed to her stoicism – but the film isn’t gruelling like the identically-themed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Its subject is not suffering but strength, and the lasting impression it leaves is one of admiration for the unshowy solidarity of these young women, their little fingers interlocked during one scene like unbreakable chain links or an everlasting pinkie promise.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is available to buy now from digital platforms and to rent from 27 May
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (15)
dir: Eliza Hittman
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion