The Illusion of Choice – Never Rarely Sometimes Always

If it hasn’t become painfully obvious over the course of the many reviews I’ve written on this blog, I am unapologetically liberal. I have respect for conservatives (though it’s waned considerably over the last three years), and even agree in principle with some of their ideas, but for the most part, my basic political philosophy is that we should be doing as much as possible to give people more freedoms rather than take them away.

As such, there has never been a period in my life where I wasn’t 100% behind abortion rights. It’s been 50 years since Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to end a pregnancy, a crucial step in simply giving women equal rights and autonomy over their own bodies. But ever since that point, conservatives have never missed a trick in trying to restrict or effectively outlaw the practice anyway. Even now, when the entire world is cooped up in their houses thanks to COVID-19, Republican lawmakers in Ohio and Florida are ordering hospitals not to provide abortion care under the guise of “freeing up resources.” Because if there’s one thing we need in this pandemic, it’s more tiny humans with undeveloped immune systems.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, one thing that’s objectively true is that for the most part, there isn’t a relatable human face on abortions. People in power (be they governmental, religious, or private companies) control the narratives, and for the longest time they’ve fostered a stereotype of women basically using abortion as a form of birth control to allow them to have sex without consequences. Essentially, as an old friend of mine put it years ago (he’s thankfully come around on the point since then), legal abortions “allow women to be whores.” My counterpoint was always, “Yeah, and?”

But seriously, apart from a few token statements here and there, the people that actually get this sort of care, i.e. WOMEN, haven’t really gotten the chance to shape the storylines about what this process means, and how they go through it. Finally, we have a true gem of cinema to share this experience with the American audiences, in the form of Eliza Hittman’s new film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, one of the most brutally honest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s the first major film to really deal with the subject matter at all since the Romanian masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which is not exactly accessible to most Americans. Also, that film dealt with procuring an illegal abortion, and part of the emotional resonance of this movie is the overwhelming stress of having it done in a country where it’s safe and legal.

Newcomer Sidney Flanigan stars as Autumn, a 17-year-old from Northumberland County, Pennsylvania (it’s just east of the midpoint of the state). The film immediately shows what kind of pressure the young lady is under, as it opens with her performing at a 50s-style music revue at her high school. Whereas the male performers are cheered and respected as they go about their routines (all of which are that exact level of high school lame), she gets catcalls of “slut” interrupting her performance. At a restaurant later, she throws water in the face of one boy who makes Boogie Nights-like tongue gestures at her to simulate a BJ. Her isolation is further compounded by her parents – a supportive yet ineffectual mother (Sharon Van Etten, who provides a song for the credits) and a dismissive father (Ryan Eggold) who barely even looks at her, much less speaks to her.

When she first suspects she’s pregnant (a visible bump in the mirror), Autumn goes to a “crisis pregnancy center,” the first of many obstacles in her odyssey to terminate, because there’s almost certainly no Planned Parenthood or legitimate women’s clinic in her rural county. When she finds out that she can’t get an abortion in Pennsylvania without parental consent since she’s underage, Autumn enlists the help of her cousin and co-worker Skylar (Talia Ryder), and they take a bus to New York City to get the procedure done, all the while doing their best to not lose their minds and avoid the truly creepy people they encounter.

Hittman makes two truly great strides with her storytelling via Autumn’s journey. First and foremost, she gives lie to the ignorant theory that restrictive laws don’t present an “undue burden” on those trying to get the procedure done. From the moment Autumn even notices something’s amiss, she is constantly waylaid by bullshit from people committed to making sure she has a baby (no word on whether they’d help her raise it on a supermarket cashier salary). She gets a store-bought pregnancy test from the “crisis center” rather than seeing a doctor. They lie to her when she asks if there can be a false positive. She gets an ultrasound where the technician makes a point of spinning unplanned pregnancies as a good thing (referring to the fetal heartbeat as “the most magical sound you’ll ever hear”). When the woman running the clinic learns Autumn is considering abortion, she forces Autumn to watch a church video (VHS even!) that tries to emotionally manipulate her against “killing” a “human life” (scientifically, both lies). As mentioned, she can’t get an abortion in her state underage without parental consent (for those not in the know, there’s a common phrase that describes Pennsylvania as “Philly in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle” to explain state political ideology). When she finally gets to New York, she learns that the crisis center lied again, telling her she was eight weeks along, when in fact she was 18, necessitating a two-day procedure. This is a common ploy to trick pregnant women and girls into thinking they have more time to consider their options before the standard deadline of the third trimester.

Seriously, anyone who argues that a woman can just get an abortion if she wants one needs to see this movie, because while it’s not a documentary, it presents cold, hard facts in stark terms, facts that way too many women who are faced with this choice don’t get. You don’t have to be in favor of the practice to understand that this is truly an ordeal for those involved, to say nothing of the potential financial costs, shame, and anxiety that goes along with it.

The second piece of structural brilliance comes in the form of how women support each other, and how predatory men can seem. Sometimes anti-abortion advocates will note support for “exceptions” like rape, incest, or if giving birth would present a life-threatening risk to the mother. However, one of the greatest tricks this film pulls is making it clear that none of that should matter. It’s never entirely clear how Autumn got pregnant, but she’s surrounded by so many different types of toxic men that there could be any number of possibilities. From the father that can’t make eye contact to the high school boys who slut shame her, there are plenty of potential candidates.

On top of that, as Autumn and Skyler make their trek, they’re beset by the worst my gender has to offer. A man masturbates on the subway looking at them. A fuckboy named Jasper (Théodore Pellerin of Boy Erased) constantly hits on Skylar, to the point that she trades romantic favors for financial assistance. Hell, in one of the few moments of levity, Autumn is at an arcade and loses a game of Tic-Tac-Toe to a chicken. The lesson: cocks always find a way to win.

But the most breathtaking, achingly beautiful moment of all comes from Flanigan in the scene that gives the film its title. Before she can have her abortion, she sits down for an interview with a Planned Parenthood counselor, to answer basic questions about her emotional and physical well-being. Over the course of about three and a half minutes, the camera remains locked on Flanigan’s face as Autumn answers some of the questions directly, fumfers on others, and outright breaks down on the rest. For those few minutes, we feel the cumulative weight of everything she knows, everything she’s experienced, every insecurity, every fear that this situation – and really her life to this point – has brought to her.

It’s heartbreaking, and honestly I hope it skyrockets Sidney Flanigan into superstardom. This is easily the single best scene I’ve witnessed so far this year, because she makes you feel every excruciating second as if you’re in the room with her. The counselor has to be detached (both from the frame and emotionally), but there’s still basic empathy in her off-screen voice, and it’s the first time anyone other than Skylar has treated her like a human being. We don’t know how she got pregnant. Frankly, it’s not our business. But Flanigan’s emotive performance opens up a world of scenarios for us to project onto her character, and thus to internalize for ourselves, and that is something truly powerful, to say nothing about how expertly it counters any argument that women take a cavalier attitude to this decision.

This is one of the most genuine and authentic films I’ve seen in a long time, and for once, the MPA isn’t getting in the way. The body infamously gave teen coming-of-age stories like Boyhood and Eighth Grade R-ratings, even though the dialogue and characters are instantly relatable to the modern teenage experience (even though I didn’t like the latter, there were some bits that really hit home). Thankfully, this time the MPA seems to have gotten the message, giving this film a wholly appropriate PG-13. This means that, ostensibly, teenagers will get to see it and absorb the reality of abortion “rights” through a reliable cipher. However, with the COVID-19 situation basically shuttering theatres nationwide, it’s unlikely that mass audiences will ever really get a chance to see this Sundance crowd favorite. And honestly, even without the pandemic, I get the feeling more conservative and rural communities wouldn’t bring it in.

Still, keep an eye out, and at the earliest opportunity you have (DVD, VOD, Stream, etc.) do yourself a favor and see this film. The two young leads give absolutely spectacular performances, and Eliza Hittman gives the world a clever, but not preachy, look at one of the most controversial topics in our society. It’s an early contender for the best film of the year.

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Er, I mean, what films should I put on my schedule to review next once the world gets back to normal? Does your community offer sufficient sex education so that kids know their options and rights? Have you ever been hit on by a thirsty guy on a Greyhound bus? Let me know! Or don’t, cause, ew!

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