A teenage girl stands before a microphone in a high school auditorium, her silver eye shadow glinting in the spotlight as she sings and strums The Exciters’ “He’s Got the Power!” A boy suddenly shouts “Slut!” She’s shaken, but recovers and continues confidently.
The girl is Autumn, the 17-year-old protagonist of “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always,” director Eliza Hittman’s latest feature. Her youthful bliss while performing at a high school talent show is shattered minutes later when we discover that Autumn, played by Sidney Flanigan, is pregnant.
She’s determined to get an abortion, even if that means traveling from her home in Pennsylvania, where underage abortions without parental consent are illegal, to New York City. Autumn’s cousin, Skylar, helps her make the journey on stolen money from their job as supermarket cashiers. They wander the streets of Manhattan together between the days-long procedure, escaping the leers of creepy men on the subway and scraping together pennies for food.
With her third film, Hittman maintains the interest in teenage stories she’s shown in her previous work. Her 2013 freshman feature, “It Felt Like Love,” explores a teenager’s first sexual experiences, and her 2017 film “Beach Rats” is a study of a gay teenager growing up in Brooklyn. “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” is a natural addition to Hittman’s filmography, and she again approaches the difficult topic in her refreshingly lifelike yet subtle signature style.
Using a straightforward cinematic style without any unnecessary artistic flourishes, Hittman tells Autumn’s story with an almost documentary-like realism. Some might view this as visually boring, but it works well for a film so honed in on one character. Autumn spends most of her time alone and says little, except for what we can read from her face. But through the tight close-ups, Hittman forces the viewer to confront Autumn’s humanity and fosters a deep empathy with her.
Acting in her first film, Flanigan is sincere even if a little stiff, which feels characteristic of a girl her age, but at times gives off the impression that she’s just reading the lines. Flanigan’s shining moment, though, comes in a scene at a Planned Parenthood clinic when she’s asked to rate how often she’s experienced sexual violence as “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes” or “always.” She breaks down, her tearful reaction saying more than words could, and the lyrics of “He’s Got the Power!” come back to us: “He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” This single shot reveals so much of what Hittman is trying to say about the loneliness of the female experience, how acute that loneliness is for young girls in particular and how women are so often the victims of the men in their lives.
Despite the obvious effects of male violence, men play a minor role in “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always.” Male companionship is a last resort in the film, and Hittman’s searing portrayal of men makes it stand out among most movies about abortion. Other 21st century takes like “Juno” and “Obvious Child” resort to escapist humor and allow the father to come running back in at the last second to say he wants to be a dad. Hittman refuses to let anyone steal Autumn’s choice from her, but this also makes her plight feels even more true-to-life, given that abortion is an experience so many women must make and endure alone.
Despite its controversial topic, “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” is not overtly political, and Hittman tells Autumn’s story as a deeply personal and individualistic experience rather than a representative one. The film highlights the comparison between the reality of abortion as inaccessible for so many women and the resources that are available for some but should be available for all.
Autumn’s confidence in her choice to get an abortion is perhaps the film’s most political statement — she doesn’t come to it by any life-changing realization, nor does she have a painstakingly thought-out reasoning for getting one. Her decision is just her reality, and for that it feels all the more realistic. “Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always” may not say anything new about abortion, but it’s a sensitive, straightforward and truly modern female story that feels long overdue.