Across the United States, institutions calling themselves Crisis Pregnancy Centers advise their clients not to pursue abortion, but instead either to parent or surrender their child for adoption. As two doctors put it in their 2018 peer-reviewed article “Why Crisis Pregnancy Centers Are Legal but Unethical,” these institutions “strive to give the impression that they are clinical centers, offering legitimate medical services and advice, yet they are exempt from regulatory, licensure, and credentialing oversight that apply to health care facilities.” In fact, these are religious propaganda stations whose proprietors exploit their First Amendment rights to nefarious extremes.
It’s an outrageous situation, but when one such clinic appears in the new movie Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the mood is quiet and sad, not angry. When the Christian lady from the center tells 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) that her fetus’s heartbeat is “the most magical sound you will ever hear,” her client says nothing, just turns her head away from the ultrasound monitor and toward the wall.
Quiet gestures and prolonged silences are key to Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the third movie by Eliza Hittman (available to rent for an astonishing $19.99 via Amazon). Autumn works in a supermarket with her cousin and is unhappily pregnant. Beyond that, we know almost nothing about her. We simply tag along with Autumn and her sympathetic cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) as they travel from Pennsylvania to New York City in search of an abortion not conditional upon parental consent.
The pair have nowhere to stay. Although New York by night is sometimes shockingly beautiful—they go to an arcade in Chinatown, bathed in flickering blue lights—the dangers they encounter are pedestrian and inevitable. A drunk guy in a suit with his shirt untucked slides his hand into his trousers on the otherwise empty subway they’re using as shelter. A college-aged young man begs and whines for them to join him at a “bar downtown.” To top it all off, at dawn, these trembling-lipped teenagers have to face down a horde of chanting Catholics outside Planned Parenthood’s door. It’s a three-day Odyssey with a Planned Parenthood appointment as its telos, and interludes on Greyhounds and subway platforms in between.
Hittman and her editor Scott Cummings (who is also her husband) are particular talents at the art of leaving things out. Autumn speaks very little, despite appearing in almost every shot. We get to know Autumn through her face and her actions, not her speech. Sometimes the camera locks so fixedly on Flanigan that it starts to make you feel boxed in, trapped.
Flanigan manages to position her face so that it is masklike and placid but obviously concealing fathoms of pain. Meanwhile, a gentle and sparse soundtrack from the avant garde songwriter Julia Holter refrains from plucking at our heartstrings, keeping the tone of Never Rarely Sometimes Always from veering into melodrama. Fans of art about women’s pain will also thrill to a small but affecting turn here from singer Sharon Van Etten as Autumn’s mom. (Van Etten also contributed to the soundtrack.)
The absence of melodrama in Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an achievement, considering that we watch Autumn try to self-induce abortion and pierce her own nose. Each of these distressing scenes is shot over Autumn’s shoulder, focused on her reflection in the mirror as she does things like punch herself hard in the stomach.
The dramatic core of Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a scene that deploys the title’s four words in a questionnaire administered by a counselor at the Planned Parenthood clinic. She is one of a series of women medics who tell Autumn the truth, and their everyday heroism seems to glow off the screen like light beside the evangelical pro-lifers’ banal evil. Part of her job is to ask Autumn what kind of sex she has been having, and if anybody is doing things to her that she doesn’t want them to, and that’s where the four words come in.
It’s a marvelously complicated spectacle. Those questionnaires go out of their way to advertise their own neutrality, offering one of four predetermined choices instead of demanding that the patient choose words themselves. Nevertheless, the intrusion is too much, and Autumn bristles. “Why are you asking me this?” she says.
If you’ve experienced one of these interviews, and many people have, then you’ll know how charged the air in the room becomes as a stranger tries to coax your secrets out of your mouth, for the sake of your body’s health. It’s an ordinary moment in the course of countless lives and yet one imbued with enough tension and dramatic interest to fuel a hundred scripts.
What keeps the movie from straying into sentimentality is its closeness to the truth, which ends up pitching Never Rarely Sometimes Always almost closer to the genre of polemical documentary than fiction. Pennsylvania does prohibit abortion for those under 18 without their parents’ or guardian’s consent. Planned Parenthood does save people’s futures. Those are the facts of Hittman’s film, but they are also the facts of life in the United States. Even worse, since the coronavirus crisis began, several states have deemed abortion to be a “nonessential” medical procedure and ordered that all planned terminations be delayed, apparently ignoring the fact that pregnancy waits for no man.
Those real-world stakes make the film harder to interpret as a piece of fiction, since, on the one hand, its delicate cinematography is inevitably overshadowed by the towering political issues at play. One leaves the movie shattered with gratitude toward Planned Parenthood and the people who work there, and disoriented with rage toward almost everybody else.
On the other hand, the movie’s vertiginous moral themes are tucked inside an understated but symbolic depiction of everyday life. Take the video Autumn sees at the Crisis Pregnancy Center. It’s a totally realistic anti-abortion video, but also a kind of scale model of Never Rarely Sometimes Always as a whole—a piece of political film committed to convincing its viewer of certain basic moral principles, only for conservatives. The contrast invites us to ask why Hittman succeeds where the propagandists fail, and the answer is a vindication of her quiet approach to movie realism.