Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is built around the quest of Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a 17-year-old girl from Pennsylvania, to get an abortion in New York. It wastes no time arguing about the morality of the procedure, instead showing why it’s a necessity for Autumn. American TV and movies have long acted as though abortion doesn’t exist. When they haven’t, Alexander Payne’s 1996 comedy “Citizen Ruth” engaged in centrist both-sidesism regarding the debate around it, while “Juno” romanticized teenage pregnancy as though rejecting the choice of abortion went along with a hip fondness for indie rock and Dario Argento films.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is distributed by a division of Comcast. Fifteen years ago, they might’ve been afraid this film would be too controversial. Faced with a conservative backlash that threatens Roe v. Wade and a resurgence of anger against right-wing men controlling women’s bodies, its feminism is now a selling point.
Feeling sick, Autumn goes to the doctor and learns that she’s pregnant. Exploring her options, she realizes she would need to get parental consent for an abortion in her home state. Although the film never explains why, she doesn’t tell her parents what’s going on but confides in her cousin and friend Skylar (Talia Ryder), who works with her as a cashier. After several awful false starts, they decide to take the bus to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brooklyn. They meet a friendly boy, Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), along the way. But Autumn’s quest risks getting derailed at every turn, especially due to its demands of time and money.
All three Hittman films depict young people heading toward a maturity the films leave it up to us to imagine. They go through traumatic rites of passage; in “Beach Rats,” a closeted gay man helps set up an act of violence that may end in murder. That film ends with his deliberately unreadable howl. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” celebrates the patient, steady determination of Autumn and Skylar. Despite Autumn’s pregnancy, they just want to get on with their lives, and they are willing to do anything they need to do so. Flanigan and Ryder’s performances are often silent to the point of blankness. The film has little dialogue, and much of its talk is directly about the medical procedures Autumn is seeking.
“Beach Rats” had a very distinctive look and mood, as though Larry Clark had directed “Kids” after watching a festival of Claire Denis films. Hittman’s direction expressed a female gaze while trying to see the world through the eyes of her gay male protagonist, objectifying her cast of fit, shirtless young men. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart shot both, but she gives “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” a far more toned-down look. In fact, its vision takes its cues from the hero’s name. The color scheme is brown and drab, with few bright colors sticking out. It reflects a world devoid of joy or excitement. The grainy cinematography sticks close to the actors’ faces.
A middle-aged man working at a supermarket hits on Autumn and invites her to a party. When the two girls are riding on the subway in New York, another man goes much further, reaching inside his pants to masturbate in front of them. Jasper turns out to be harmless, but when he first approaches the girls he might well have turned out to be another horny creep.
The film’s centerpiece is an extended take where Autumn is interviewed about the experiences that led her to get an abortion. It gets its title from this scene, where a Planned Parenthood worker asks her if she has been physically or sexually assaulted by her partner “never rarely sometimes always.” Lurking moralists should listen to her answers and realize that males didn’t respect her right to consent or allow her to use birth control but have created a world where getting an abortion is akin to becoming a character in a video game’s most difficult mode.
Like its look, the tone of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is muted. Calling it an ode to female friendship would be banal. But the film points out how American society has been set up deliberately so that young women have few defenders except each other. Instead of blandly hailing a generic “right to choose,” it shows the role class plays in making abortion available. Autumn doesn’t have much money, but if she had just a little less her story would be much more troubled.
If this sounds like a sermon, Hittman’s film is far from it. It knows how to make its points subtly (as in the references to the false nostalgia for an idealized past in its opening scene, set at a talent show where Autumn performs a song from the early 1960s). Like “Beach Rats,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” closes at the start of a new journey. At least Autumn is able to figure out her needs and stand up for them, despite a hostile world.
NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS | Directed by Eliza Hittman | Focus Features | Opens Mar. 13 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St.’ angelikafilmcenter.com/nyc | The Landmark at 57 West, 657 W. 57th St.; landmarktheatres.com