SUNDANCE ’20 – ‘Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always’ is a Bleak Portrait of Womanhood

In her follow-up to 2017’s Beach Rats, director Eliza Hittman returns with an uncomfortable look at the reality of getting an abortion. It’s a film with an extremely simple, procedural plot, but the weight of the material at hand provides an ocean of depth into something as simple as a doctor asking a teenage girl how frequently she’s had sex. In Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, not only is the act of an abortion suffocating, but so is simply existing in the world as a woman. The most ordinary actions can cause the biggest ripple-effect of consequences, and decisions like whether to speak to a seemingly polite man on a bus have to be handled delicately because of what any man is capable of doing. The film’s most tense, unsettling moments are everyday realities for many.

Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) is a teenage girl living in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania — the rural part of PA often referred to as “Pennsyltucky.” She’s introduced to us singing sweetly and playing guitar at her high school talent show, performing a song about her love for a boy who doesn’t treat her right. A teen in the audience shouts out in the middle of the performance, calling her a slut. After a tempered pause, during which she regains her composure, Autumn continues to sing.

Autumn’s mother (played by musician Sharon Van Etten) is meek and mostly absent, under the thumb of the man who is either Autumn’s father or stepfather (Ryan Eggold) — equally absent but doubly verbally abusive. Autumn works at a nearby grocery store in town with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), managed by a repugnant man who kisses the young girls’ hands when they pass him counting register drawers at the end of the night. When Autumn realises that she might be pregnant, she seeks council at a local women’s clinic intent on feeding her misinformation in the form of an inaccurate estimate of how long she’s been pregnant, and showing her anti-abortion propaganda videos. Discovering that state abortion laws in PA require minors to have the consent of a parent, and failing to induce her own miscarriage, Autumn and Skylar embark on a trip to New York City, where Autumn can get the help she needs.

The plot of the film is particularly threadbare — honing in on the simple act of seeking and receiving an abortion, and the lengths many women in the United States have to go in order to get one. The road to the Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn is paved with more than one obstacle, including a lack of necessary funds, the time with which certain abortions take to complete, navigating a massive, unfamiliar metropolitan and exploiting the kindness of horny men. And after Autumn finally reaches the Planned Parenthood, she discovers that not only can she not get an appointment scheduled for an abortion until the next day, but that her particular abortion (during the second trimester) will take yet another day to complete.

So, Autumn and Skylar must fend for themselves during two long, seemingly endless nights in New York City, sleeping in subway stations and riding the trains until morning finally shows its face. At every turn, you fear wayward glances of unsavoury men, the two girls eventually finding themselves with no other place to turn but to one “nice guy” they exchanged numbers with on their Greyhound bus. At times, the film feels like a thriller, even though its narrative is nothing more than a fairly mundane, if not burdensome series of situations and tasks. Your heart pounds for these vulnerable women in mostly innocuous situations. 

Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always plays like Hemingway — stark prose sheltering an entire universe underneath. Simple doctor’s questions answered with “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” or “always,” are a gateway into an unseen world, Autumn unable to respond when asked if her sexual partner ever threatens or abuses her. While there is, however, a level of normalisation that should be afforded to abortion; that getting one is commonplace, and not always a life-defining moment, the purpose of Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always is not to depict how all abortions should be perceived, but to show one girl’s abortion, one type of abortion story. In this story, the everyday realities of existing as woman in a system that means to oppress them are put on display, and the simple story of one abortion becomes many women’s stories.

Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2020 on January 24th


by Brianna Zigler

Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the ShadowsA Serious ManLord of the Rings: The Return of the KingSwiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs

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