Autumn is a shy 17-year-old who lives in a small Pennsylvania town. Picture Kayla, the lead character in “Eighth Grade,” just a few years older.
When she notices her belly has been growing, she goes to the local women’s clinic for a pregnancy test, which turns out to be positive. She’s not ready to be a mom and doesn’t want to have a child that she’d give up for adoption, so she subtly asks about having an abortion. However, the women’s clinic is run by people who are opposed to that procedure, so instead of help, she gets anti-abortion propaganda.
To her credit, Autumn doesn’t fall for it, so she looks for alternatives online. Unfortunately, her state doesn’t allow minors to get an abortion without parental consent, and she can’t talk to her folks about her dilemma. So, she and her cousin, Skylar, take a long bus ride to New York City, where Autumn goes to a Planned Parenthood clinic for the procedure.
Unfortunately, the cousins are unfamiliar with New York and don’t have enough money for a hotel, so when the process drags out over a couple of days, they’re forced to ride the subway and hang out at the Port Authority bus terminal with nothing to do.
All of this plays out very slowly and without much dialogue. Writer/director Eliza Hittman doesn’t give Autumn and Skylar much to say, nor is there any discussion of the circumstances they deal with. They just drag their suitcase from one place to another, stopping only for an occasional snack, or to connect with Jasper, a slightly older guy they met on the bus, who clearly has his eye on Skylar.
The scene in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” with the most impact takes place in the Planned Parenthood clinic, where a very caring counselor asks Autumn a series of questions about her health and sexual history that can only be answered with one of the four words that makes up the movie’s title (e.g. Do your partners wear condoms? Have you ever been forced by anyone to have sex? Do you feel safe at home?). This is the only time we get any insight into Autumn’s life, a window into the anxiety she’s riddled with as she deals with the pregnancy with no help from her parents. It’s a stunning scene, acted beautifully by newcomer Sidney Flanigan as Autumn and real-life social worker and onetime Planned Parenthood staffer Kelly Chapman as the empathetic counselor.
Among the supporting cast, Skylar is played nicely by Talia Ryder, who will be one of the Jets in Steven Spielberg’s version of “West Side Story” later this year. Jasper is played by Theodore Pellerin, who was so good as the creepy Rudy Bonar last fall opposite Kirsten Dunst in HBO’s “On Becoming A God In Central Florida.”
Autumn clearly knows she’s not ready to take on the responsibility of raising a child. After all, she’s barely done being a kid herself. Through her story, the overarching message of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is revealed — the difficulty so many women, particularly those with very little money, have in getting an abortion in this country. If access is not being blocked by conservatives and evangelicals at the state level, there’s the bureaucracy of the system everywhere else they turn, not to mention the cost (Autumn can’t put the procedure on her parents’ insurance, because they’ll find out when the EOBs are mailed to the house).
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a quiet film I couldn’t stop thinking about. It made an impression at Sundance and other film festivals and was scheduled to open in theaters this week, but with the COVID-19 crisis keeping everyone home, Focus Features has decided to instead offer it online, where it begins streaming today.
I give it a 7.5 out of 10.