Critic's Notebook: Why 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' Is So Rare Among American Abortion Dramas

Focus Features
Sidney Flanigan in 'Never Rarely Sometimes Always'

Unlike so many similarly themed films before it, Eliza Hittman's quietly groundbreaking new feature is a hero's quest, not a polemic or a sob story.

Only three features into her filmmaking career, writer-director Eliza Hittman has established herself as an astute chronicler of contemporary female teendom, and her new film is her most accomplished in that regard. But it had the misfortune of opening March 13, just in time for the coronavirus-necessitated shutdown of theaters. If, at this moment in our global crisis, we can contemplate a return to such indulgences as critics' year-end top 10s, it's a film that's certain to show up on many of those lists — not just for the strength of its storytelling or its two extraordinary lead performances, and not just for the unforgettable friendship at its core. Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes the American abortion drama to places it has never before gone.

With reproductive rights under siege for years, piece by piece, state by state, the need for clear-eyed explorations of the subject has been high. And with a number of states attempting backdoor bans on abortion as a "nonessential procedure" during the COVID-19 medical emergency, that need is especially urgent.

What sets apart the film (which, in lieu of its planned-for theatrical expansion, will be available to rent via on-demand services starting Friday) is its resolute focus on the experience of the central female character, 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), in her mission to end an unintended pregnancy. Most every other abortion-focused drama I've seen, no matter how sympathetic to the woman, views the matter through a broader social lens. That's not to say the social implications aren't clear in everything that Autumn must endure — the layers of bureaucracy, the intrusions and politicization that have become inextricable from such an intensely personal matter.

In its art house naturalism and its direct engagement with the subject of abortion, Never Rarely calls to mind European dramas more readily than American ones: Cristian Mungiu's indelible 2007 Palm d'Or winner, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; the late great Agnès Varda's One Sings, the Other Doesn't, a 1977 ode to female friendship and women's liberation; and Céline Sciamma's recent Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with its benevolent vision of abortion as a form of sisterly caretaking among women. The U.S. films that Never Rarely evokes most strongly are front-line documentaries, key among them Tony Kaye's 152-minute, 16-years-in-the-making Lake of Fire (2006).

American narrative films have tended to treat the subject of abortion with moralistic melodrama or, in the case of many comedies, half-hearted nods. Before 1973, when the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision protected a pregnant woman's right to choose, the abortions that took place onscreen were by definition illicit, and frequently botched — self-administered or back-street jobs, or, as in the case of the popular 1916 silent film Where Are My Children?, the secret work of society doctors. When they weren't heartless narcissists, the women tended to be sacrificial lambs, the abortionists villains.

That's certainly true of the abortionist in Street Corner, a pulpy 1948 exploitation film. She's pointedly "foreign" — i.e., not Anglo-Saxon — all the easier to demonize, all the better to prosecute in a court of law. The 17-year-old girl at the center of the movie comes from a well-to-do family and lives a pampered life, utterly unlike the tough and resilient Autumn in Never Rarely. But these two teenage characters do share two things across the decades: emotionally absent parents and the need to navigate a mosaic of contradictory state laws.

In order to escape the shame of premarital pregnancy, Street Corner's Lois and her boyfriend, Bob, plan to marry, and to do so they'll have to travel to another state, where parental consent isn't required. (After a predictably melodramatic turn of events, instead Lois must head to the other side of the tracks to end the pregnancy.) In Hittman's film, Autumn boards a bus in working-class Pennsylvania that's bound for cosmopolitan New York, where she won't need a parent's OK to undergo an abortion. At her side is her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), as true a friend as anyone could hope for. There's no boyfriend in the picture, and with good reason: In our brief glimpses at Autumn's male classmates, their immaturity and misogyny are appalling.

The movie pulses with an undertow of menace: You feel it in the barely concealed male entitlement of a fellow bus rider's flirtation with Skylar, and in the smiley aggression of a small-town women's clinic as it substitutes anti-abortion propaganda for health care. All of this, Hittman makes compellingly clear, is part of the obstacle course young women face. Nobody in her film pronounces childbirth the "crowning glory of womanhood," as a family doctor does in Street Corner, but at least one of them comes close, and a mob of protesters watch in judgmental silence, from a legally prescribed distance, as Autumn enters a Planned Parenthood facility.

A different form of judgment greeted the 1934 hit Men in White: condemnation by the Catholic Legion of Decency. As its title suggests, the feature is interested in the trials and tribulations of male doctors. After Clark Gable's character impregnates a nurse, her disastrous attempt at terminating the pregnancy (implied, never acknowledged directly) turns her pain into a lesson for him and his self-involved fiancée, played by Myrna Loy, who's called upon to deliver the climactic howler "It's bigger than all of us: humanity." In other words, it's not about the suffering woman (Elizabeth Allan), who's finally adorned in enough religious symbolism to seal the point (but not enough, apparently, to make the movie acceptably "decent" in at least one group's eyes).

Compared with these vintage dramas, many recent American comedies — among them two 2007 box office smashes, Juno and Knocked Up — may separate abortion from stigma and trauma, but they also reduce it to a plot beat, a perfunctory check mark on the way to the unconvincing happy wrap-up. An exception is Obvious Child (2014), which not only puts abortion front and center, unapologetically, but also makes it the starting point of a romantic relationship — a rom-com contrivance, but at least a thoughtful and provocative one. Its most resonant sequence, though, is a conversation between the central character (Jenny Slate) and her mother (Polly Draper), who reveals that she had an illegal abortion while in college. It's not an occasion for tears or swelling strings; it's a matter-of-fact exchange of information, and one that many women of that generation will relate to.

In a different vein, the broad satire of Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth addresses the way women can become political footballs, and offers caricatures on both sides of the debate. A pro-choice activist tells Laura Dern's Ruth: "It's not just about you anymore" — echoing the doctor in Street Corner, who declares, before the film pivots to shock-tactic sex education lecture mode, "A lot of people besides Lois and Bob are involved." The pregnant woman herself hardly figures in the equation. In Obvious Child, on the other hand, Slate's 20-something comedian is a fully realized character, albeit one who's still growing up. Hers is a coming-of-age story.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is also a coming-of-age story. It's not a polemic. To borrow an overused phrase from the screenwriting lexicon, it's a hero's journey. It's worth noting that male protagonists in such test-of-character narratives aren't, as a rule, required to justify their desires, goals and acts of self-determination in terms of some people's definition of the greater good.

Autumn's quest will entail hard-won self-knowledge, notably in the exquisitely wrenching scene that gives the film its title, a master class in cinematic storytelling. Her mission to end an unwanted pregnancy is a mission to claim her life and her body as her own, and Skylar, in her unwavering support, is staking her own claim in that necessary ideal. New York is their crucible. Unable to afford a hotel room, they spend much of their time there underground — riding back and forth on the subway, a Hades and a cocoon.

Along with the slow-boil danger that courses through the story is a pained question: How far have we come? In the opening sequence of Never Rarely, Autumn is the outlier in a high school talent show. Her classmates indulge in corny '50s shtick; she turns a golden oldie into a sullen accusation. Nostalgia's blade cuts two ways. The movie Our Time, released a year after Roe v. Wade, is set in a Massachusetts boarding school for girls, in 1955, and its plot hinges on an illegal abortion. In case you might hope for smooth sailing for the back-street patient, keep in mind that the film's alternate title is Death of Her Innocence. That drama looks back at a benighted time; Hittman's exposes how benighted our own has become.