Twenty-one-year-old musician Sidney Flanigan resembles a young Jodie Foster in her acting debut as Autumn, a pregnant teenager who takes a bus from rural Pennsylvania to New York to get an abortion.
Accompanied by her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), and without her parent’s knowledge, the excursion hits several roadblocks as the film reaches its apex during an emotional scene where Autumn is asked a series of personal questions by a counselor at a clinic. Her response to the multiple-choice inquiry where the film gets its title “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” – suggests a disturbing quagmire.
Writer-director Eliza Hittman (“Beach Rats”) isn’t worried about preaching to her audience. Instead, her film gives us an intimate look at the abortion ordeal experienced by teenage girls without using a woman’s right to choose as a platform for the narrative. On the flipside, “Never” isn’t a faith-based film, although there are several scenes at a small clinic in her Pennsylvania hometown where Autumn is shown an “Abortion is murder” video and given pamphlets on the joys of giving up the baby for adoption.
By using real medical professionals in supporting roles and consulting with Planned Parenthood, Hittman remains procedural in her approach to the subject, giving the film authenticity to the point where it almost resembles a documentary. Unlike the dramatic Romanian film “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” Gillian Robespierre’s rom-com “Obvious Child” with Jenny Slate, and the classic “Dirty Dancing,” the whos, whys, and wheres of Autumn’s partner don’t factor into the story. The focus is strictly on Autumn’s unplanned fast-track into adulthood and what the abortion experience is like for so many teenage girls who leave home and travel to one of the few states where no parental consent is required.
The film opens with Autumn performing at the high school talent show. Her song of choice, “He’s Got the Power” by The Exciters with lyrics that include “He makes me do things I don’t want to do” and “He’s got the power, the power of love over me.” There’s a reason she’s singing the song although we’re never really sure who the intended target may be.
Is it the teenage boy laughing in the audience who gets a glass of water thrown in his face moments later? Or is it the hostile stepfather that mouths off remarks like “Your mother wanted me to tell you that you did a good job” instead of complementing her on the performance?
The film never alludes to who got Autumn pregnant, and Hittman isn’t concerned with the detail. With very few words, but strong facial expressions and body gestures, Flanigan gets the point across that Autumn isn’t interested in keeping the child.
Pennsylvania requires that one of the parents give permission for an abortion or a judge can excuse you from the requirement. Autumn opts to head to New York where no consent is needed, but only after trying to induce a miscarriage by overdosing on Vitamin C and repeatedly punching herself in the stomach, a grueling scene to watch.
When Autumn’s cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) finds out about the pregnancy, she decides to help by stealing money from the supermarket they both work for, in order to pay for the abortion and the trip to New York. She’s probably not worried about her boss finding out about the missing money because he’s a middle-aged creep who is inappropriately touching the young cashier. There is no clean-cut villain in Hittman’s narrative but a collective one in the form of the male characters.
The two transcend on the myriad of New York and what Autumn expected would be a one-day visit turns into a multi-day procedure. With nowhere to stay and little cash, the two have very few options.
Théodore Pellerin appears in the final act as a young raver headed to New York who hits on Skylar while on the bus. Pellerin delivers a good performance as the girls’ last resort.
“Never” churns away in repress mode led by a brilliant Sidney Flanigan who keeps you captivated as she navigates through unknown territory in her quest to get an abortion. Whatever your beliefs, you can’t help but feel empathy for Autumn.
The pivotal turning point comes in that emotional scene that gives Hittman’s film its title. It will either reinforce your feelings about her character or cause you to rethink them.
Talia Ryder is equally impressive as the self-sacrificing best friend and cousin.