When watching Never Rarely Sometimes Always I kept thinking about a conversation I had with a friend of mine a few months ago. It was one of those deeper conversations, over many cups of coffee, in what is now an ancient and older world, of days gone by that we took for granted. It was around December when the newest edition of Black Christmas had just come out, and I had the political machinations of horror movies on my mind when I told her that I felt all movies about women were political in one way or another, because to be a woman is a political act in and of itself, whether we want it to be or not. In director Eliza Hittman’s newest film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, she follows the story of a young girl named Autumn, played by Sidney Flanigan in what is one of the best debut performances I’ve seen in quite some time. Autumn is pregnant and looking to have an abortion, but she lives in rural Pennsylvania. She’s from that Northern Appalachian region that’s closer to the Southern United States than it is Philadelphia. She has a stressed relationship with her family, because her step-father’s a creep (Ryan Eggold) and her mother (Sharon Van Etten) is doing the mammoth work of over-seeing her two younger children and holding down a job: a quiet heroism that women will recognize immediately. Autumn’s from the kind of family you hide your secrets from, and a pregnancy is too heavy a thunderstorm for her life to bear. So she embarks on a journey to the neon draped world of New York City with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to have an abortion and move on with her life. Autumn’s story is not unique. It will be familiar for many, and Eliza Hittman makes the bold decision to not call attention to the political urgency of Autumn’s story; Hittman knows that the politics are inherent. They exist as a fact of life, as an objectivity that cannot be disputed, and as honest as Autumn’s decision to terminate her pregnancy.
Fellow film critic Monica Castillo interviewed Eliza Hittman for Polygon, and Hittman remarked about the political angle of her film, “I also didn’t want to make something that was overly political and overly didactic, and make something that felt like spinach, something that everybody needed to consume in order to understand the world. Really, my passion was for telling a character-driven story…” . Hittman foregoes an overtly political position and opts to a burrow into her characters. Hittman shot Never Rarely Sometimes Always in 16mm and the grainy realism of the film negative enhances the intimacy between the audience and Autumn. In all of her films she shoots her characters up close with little distance so that they occupied the vast majority of the frame. It gives off the illusion that we are actually walking in their shoes and feeling what they feel. Hittman’s brilliance is in her ability to present a hyper-focused attention to detail and touch. When Hittman’s camera sways or lingers it is usually in the middle of hands clasping or holding onto something. In this film there are a few moments where the simple act of characters holding hands is the emotional follow-through of bigger thematic elements, like women supporting one another in ways that only we can recognize. It is a secret unspoken language in cinematic terms that has gone under documented, due to the historical disparity of gender unbalance in the directors chair.
Autumn’s journey to have her abortion provided for her is one with many roadblocks, because she’s under the age of 18, and in Pennsylvania it requires the signature of a parent or guardian. For Autumn it would become an additional burden to get her mother involved and her step-father doesn’t care about her whatsoever. This is Autumn’s cross to bear, perhaps unfairly, but her cousin Skylar helps her out when she can. The decision is made to never once suggest who it was that Autumn had sex with that resulted in her situation. The ambiguity of who or what caused her pregnancy is never commented upon, because it’s already too late and to have inserted an outside party into Autumn’s decision-making would have shoe-horned in drama for the sake of it. NRSA is single-minded in this respect and better off for it, because without these outside elements everything else is rendered as a sketch instead of the fuller portrait of Autumn’s forward movement in her decision-making, and how it is ultimately an experience that only she can have. Her cousin Skylar eventually asks her what an abortion is like and Autumn doesn’t have words for her. She eventually tells her “it’s not painful. Uncomfortable”, only Autumn can know for sure what it was like, but the beauty in Hittman’s movie is that she is so great at giving viewers a window into the experiences of her characters that we have some feeling of what this was like too.
When writing about movies that cover abortion there is always this unconscious feeling that the author needs to state the obvious position of it being a fundamental right. It can distract from the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking if you allow yourself to fall down the rabbit-hole of political argument. It’s a problem that comes up when discussing films made by or about women. We are not given the benefit of ambivalent politics. When we do something it can never just be about that one thing. We have to be artists and feminists at the same time and it is a burden that we cannot focus on only the artistic processes of the art itself. Men are never asked the questions of gender disparity that they should be answering or doing the work to untangle from the world. It’s a job that we’re asked to do instead, and a movie like Never Rarely Sometimes Always shows with such clarity that there is a world of women’s stories existing underneath the surface that desperately need let out. For more reasons than just seeing yourself on screen or having your story told a movie like this one represents something that I find far more appealing and that is stark emotional honesty that does all the work of a picket sign without the need for one. It’s just a great fucking movie whose politics are inherent in the form of the camera-choices, acting, and direction. I long for a cinema and a world that can champion a story like this one: a cinema of characters making complicated decisions and directors who will illuminate those stories with integrity and emotional intelligence.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is now available on VOD