Never Rarely Sometimes Always offers a passionate defense of abortion rights

Director Eliza Hittman crafts a soft-spoken film about the challenges facing pregnant teenagers exercising their right to choose.

Too often, a woman’s right to choose is framed through the lens of some kind of communal decision. The right to have an abortion should also include the right to not have that choice subject to the endless meddling of people who care little for life after birth, or the young people feeling scared and alone. Never Rarely Always Sometimes injects cold realism into the realities that pregnant teenagers face to exercise their American rights.

Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a quiet, talented young girl living in a rural town in Pennsylvania. She performs music at school talent shows and works at a supermarket along with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). Noticing that her stomach was growing larger along with some other symptoms of pregnancy, she visits a local clinic to confirm her suspicions.

The clinic is less interested in providing aid than making sure Autumn keeps the pregnancy. The state itself is in a similar boat, preventing minors from having access to abortions without parental consent. Confiding in Skylar, the two scrape together some cash to get them to New York City to have the procedure.

Director Eliza Hittman throws the two young women into brutal scenarios, fully immersed in the painful reality that girls like Autumn face through the country, as well as the world, on a daily basis. You need money for the procedure, for travel, and for housing — costs that young folk are generally not expected to foot for themselves. Most can’t, leading to further dangerous situations.

Autumn’s decision is never up for debate, setting Never Rarely Always Sometimes apart from most abortion narratives. When agency is seemingly taken from her, she pursues self-termination, an incredibly dangerous proposition. The father is hinted at briefly, but plays no role in the narrative, nor do Autumn’s parents, who never appear on screen.

Though most of the film takes place in New York City, Hittman has a way of making each scene feel intimate. She uses frequent close-ups to convey Autumn’s sense of isolation. There’s almost no conversational dialogue either. Autumn has a support system in Skylar, but she’s also a teenage girl hardly able to offer any insight into what her cousin is going through.

Shot on 16mm film, the scenes are gritty and raw. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart frames the city in a bleak fashion that communicates the feeling of hopelessness when you’re surrounded by millions of people yet you’ve never felt more alone. There are those who try to help Autumn, but it’s hard to blame her for trying to stand on her own tired feet. When control of your own life is in jeopardy, it’s hard to let people in.

Making her acting debut, Flanigan brings a quiet sense of grace to Autumn. She’s strong-willed and independent-minded, but Flanigan excels at portraying the ways her character buckles under the unthinkable pressure. Each second is another step forward, albeit one that requires strength to move.

Hittman presents a strong contrast between so-called “pro-life” organizations and the people who work at Planned Parenthood. The clinic seeks to achieve its outcome through whatever means necessary, namely disinformation and blatant dishonesty. Though that same crowd claims that facilities that perform abortions possess some kind of agenda, the staff who work there are thoroughly professional, interested in nothing other than the safety of their patients.

Never Rarely Always Sometimes is quite frustrating at times. Hittman weaves so much compassion into the narrative that there’s a natural desire to scream out at the screen to help the girls avoid some terrible decisions. That’s kind of the whole point of the movie, though. Isolated teenagers make mistakes when they feel they have nowhere to turn.

The procedure itself is presented in a straightforward, practically mundane manner. Hittman relies on little gestures to convey emotion, never trying to enhance the dramatic tension of what’s unfolding on screen. At times, it almost feels like a documentary, taking its audience through the motions as if they were unfolding in real-time.

The narrative largely functions without a traditional antagonist. From the people at the clinic to abortion protestors to a shady boy the girls meet on the bus, there’s plenty of undesirable characters.

America itself plays the role of the villain. Roe v. Wade was supposed to have been settled in the 1970s, further upheld in the ’90s with Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The whole notion of stare decisis (Latin for “let the decision stand”) is supposed to serve as the underpinning for the entire American judicial system. The affirmation supporting a woman’s right to choose was supposed to be absolute and final.

Of course, that’s largely an ideal, not the reality facing too many pregnant women. Legislatures looking to take America back a few decades do everything they can to force their desired outcome on girls like Autumn. To them, the path to abortion is supposed to be full of terror and hardship, the kind that makes you want to turn back. Never Rarely Always Sometimes follows that horrific journey, fully showcasing what happens when you try and transpose someone’s basic liberty.