The basic plot of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is easy enough to describe. A 17-year-old girl named Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) winds up pregnant in a small Pennsylvania town. Prevented from seeking an abortion by the state’s parental consent laws, she takes off for New York City with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), where what they’d assumed would be a one-day procedure proves considerably more complicated.
But that synopsis, and the polemical “issue movie” treatment it might suggest, hardly does justice to the surgically precise emotional calibration of writer-director Eliza Hittman’s exceptional film, which is both of a piece with, and a significant step forward from, her prior youth-in-crisis works “Beach Rats” and “It Felt Like Love.” At once dreamlike and ruthlessly naturalistic, steadily composed yet shot through with roiling currents of anxiety, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a quietly devastating gem.
When we first meet Autumn – introverted, morose, standoffish – she’s singing a confessional folk take on “He’s Got the Power” at her high school talent show, only for a boy in the audience to interrupt her with a shout of “slut!” A tense exchange in a pizza place with her ineffectually supportive mother (Sharon Van Etten) and openly hostile step-father (Ryan Eggold) follows, and the fact that her heckler is casually sitting a few tables over tells us everything we need to know about the claustrophobia of her hometown. When she gets back to her bedroom, she takes a look at herself in the mirror, and her eyes naturally turn to the growing bump in her lower abdomen.
Autumn finds little help at the women’s clinic downtown, where the nurses are outwardly warm and reassuring, though a close read of their word choices makes it fairly clear where they come down on the Roe v. Wade debate. Since an abortion in the state requires a parent’s permission anyway, Autumn makes some hesitant, though plenty harrowing, attempts to end the pregnancy herself. Fortunately her cousin Skylar, with whom she works at a run-down grocery store, quickly figures out Autumn’s secret. Slipping some $10s from the register into her pocket, she wordlessly agrees to accompany her to New York for an abortion, and they hop on a Greyhound the next morning.
Once they arrive, they find themselves shuttled back and forth through the labyrinthine corridors and roadblocks of the American health care system, which forces them to remain in the city much longer than they’d bargained for. Not having anywhere to stay, they spend the rest of their trip slogging sleeplessly from one station to another, lugging their shared suitcase up staircase after staircase, and though both girls are in way over their heads, Hittman never portrays the city as a menacing urban wasteland – like so much of the adult world, it’s simply indifferent to them.
(Which is not to say that the film is without threats. Throughout, Hittman makes us feel the weight of pervasive male attention. Whether it’s a creeper on the subway, a flirtatious older supermarket customer, or even an ostensibly harmless college kid (Theodore Pellerin) who tries to talk up Skylar on the bus, the fear of men barging their way uninvited into these girls’ lives hangs heavy over everything.)
Hittman’s screenplay is a marvel of economy, never wasting time filling in relationship details or backstories when they can be more powerfully hinted at. Most obviously, we never learn the father of Autumn’s unborn child, though the film subtly offers two possible candidates – neither are good, and one is particularly bad. The scene that provides the film’s title is a gut-churning back-and-forth at a clinic that opens several doors into even darker chapters in Autumn’s past, all of which are left purposefully, and hauntingly, unexplored.
We may not quite get under Autumn’s skin, but that’s by design. It isn’t just that she holds everyone at arm’s length, but that she’s a girl for whom survival is contingent upon compartmentalizing trauma, and Flanigan – a first-time actor – has a disarming way of parceling out tiny fragments of Autumn’s inner life, only to quickly raise her defenses again as soon as she realizes that she’s doing it. Skylar is considerably more outgoing, though she knows her cousin too well to try and draw her out. Indeed, the most eerily magical moments in the film are the ones that show Autumn and Skylar’s almost telepathic communication. With just a shared glance, a squeeze of the hand, or a minute spent applying one another’s makeup in a bathroom, Flanigan and Ryder are able to speechlessly convey things to which other films might devote pages of dialogue – not just reactive emotions, but complex decisions, explanations, assurances. Both performances are outstanding.
But what’s most remarkable about “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is the way it manages to honor the gravity of Autumn’s experience without ever sensationalizing it, or allowing the film to veer toward melodrama. It’s clear that taking this trip is one of the biggest, scariest things she’s ever done, but once the film fades to black, it’s easy to imagine Autumn living her life more or less as she had before. It’s easy to imagine her never mentioning the experience again, consigning it to yet another of the emotional lockboxes she keeps deep inside. This may as well be the sort of thing that happens to teenage girls all the time. Because, of course, it is.