In 2007, the Romanian drama film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme D’or at Cannes and brought the topic of abortion to the forefront of European cinema. It’s a film I love but have rarely revisited due to it’s cold, uncomfortable aesthetic, now 13 years later the English language equivalent has arrived with Never Rarely Sometimes Always bringing teenage abortions to the center stage of America and shows just how messed up the situation is.
The film follows 17 year old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) who discovers she is pregnant and in need of an abortion, with abortions being illegal in her home state of Pennsylvania, and the local Women’s Health Center pushing anti-abortion propaganda in her face. Autumn confides in her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to help her get to New York to find a clinic that will perform the procedure before her parents find out.
And honestly that’s about it, two teenage girls go to the city to get one of them an abortion, it’s a slow, small film with not a whole lot of plot. Obviously, this being a film things don’t go smoothly but they run a lot better than you might think, in a lot of ways this isn’t so much about the struggle to get an abortion, but the full experience of going through one and the emotional toll it takes on you. Autumn could be any teenage girl in the exact same situation and it can be a harsh watch at times, often uncomfortable and unflinching in how it takes on the topic, and I say that as an almost 30 year old dude, I cannot imagine the stress that teenager and/or women have to put up with.
This is the type of story that does a lot with very little, the main plot might be simple but it uses that simplicity to touch upon several underlying issues that can lead to unwanted pregnancy including shitty home-life, lack of education, and possible sexual abuse. None of these topics take away from the story – in fact several of them are only hinted at through dialogue and body language – but together they layer on top of each other for a harrowing experience.
Naturally for such a small film, the cast is miniscule with only Autumn and Skylar getting any characterization but that doesn’t mean the rest of the cast is forgettable. It’s quite the opposite in fact, with the general aesthetic being this tightly focused you pick up on everyone’s role within the story, be it a nurse who lied to Autumn to trick her out of getting an abortion or a sensitive counselor who gives perhaps the first and only sign of genuine goodness in the entire film. What’s notable is that the vast majority of male characters are predatory and just downright weird with two standouts being Autumn’s stepdad and Jasper (Theodore Pellerine) a young man who the girls meet on the bus into New York. Autumn’s stepdad – I don’t remember if he got a name or not – is only in the one scene but the vibe he gives off is creepy and way too sexually intimidating, despite it never being confirmed who the father is there’s enough hints for the argument to be made that it’s him, while Jasper’s attempts at chatting up Skylar are met with trepidation he doesn’t let up and actively becomes pushy later on.
I’ve seen some people complain about the anti-man sentiments of the film but it’s heavily hinted that at least one, likely more, of Autumn’s sexual partners have been physically and sexually abusive, and being 17 and still working out her view on the world Autumn is likely to have warped views on men. We’re seeing this world through her eyes, we’re seeing the subtle ways that men can prey on women and how Autumn has learned to pick up on those ways in order to protect herself, it’s not so much anti-man as it is pro-defensive, recognizing the signs of troubles before they become an issue which can cover more than one topic in this film.
The two girls are our leads throughout the film but even then I’d say Skylar gets sidelined a little bit when compared to Autumn. That’s not to take away from Ryder’s performance, she fits right into the subtle nature of the whole production and conveys a ton of emotion with minimal facial expressions – one scene near the end has so much fear on her face that it’s hard for you not to want to reach through the screen and help her. The only issue with her is that this is Autumn’s film and she dominates the whole thing, leaving Skylar at times to feel like a sounding board, things do pick up for her in the second half and she factors well into the overarching theme of female friendship and sisterhood in a masculine world, but it takes time for her to feel like a proper character in the film.
But as mentioned before this film belongs to Autumn, which is even more impressive when you realize that Flanigan has never done professional acting before because goddamn she feels like a pro. Like Ryder, Flanigan captures the film’s soft-spoken aesthetic and runs with it but since Autumn is the focal point of the whole film her emotions feel much louder on the screen, which is saying something because for the first 20 minutes of the film, Flanigan barely says a word, she says nothing to her mother or step-dad about the pregnancy, she doesn’t get in contact with the father or any potential father, she suffers in silence with a pretty brutal scene of her trying to force a miscarriage letting us know where her head is at. Autumn is a teenager, she’s 17 years old, she’s alone and pregnant and the world around her is scaring her into trying to keep this baby that she clearly doesn’t want. It’s a f**kin shitty situation for any woman to be in but Flanigan’s ability to show us how clearheaded she is about getting the abortion is key, teenagers are dumb but they’re not that dumb. Autumn knows she doesn’t want to have the baby but actually getting the procedure is the part she needs to figure out with nobody but her cousin to turn to, it’s the balancing act between naïve and inexperienced that stood to make or break Autumn’s character, but Flanigan nails it.
While Flanigan nails the understated emotions of hiding her fear from everyone around her, when it comes time for her defenses to come down you really feel the change in her performance. It’s still a small, slight shift in Autumn’s character but for a film like this she might as well have a sign above her head saying “This is the sad part”, and it is the sad part in a myriad of ways, easily the best scene in the film when Autumn is being – for lack of a better word – interviewed by the clinic about her abortion and having the answer questions with never, rarely, sometimes, or always. The camera never leaves Autumn for the entire duration, and it’s a good five, ten minute scene where we see her emotional armor crumbling away with every question that reveals so much about Autumn’s past and the violently sexual life she’s been forced to live. Flanigan doesn’t say anything to reveal what Autumn’s gone through but it’s what she doesn’t say and her emotional reactions to certain question that say everything you need to hear. This scene alone is worth watching the film for but it’s the whole experience that makes it so impactful.
The film is directed by Eliza Hittman, not someone I’m familiar with but based on this film, I’m interested in looking back on her work because she absolutely nails this. There’s a level of realism to this film that doesn’t hits you over the head with it’s themes, but slowly sinks itself in like a knife. As mentioned earlier, the general tone of the film is to recapture the feelings of going through an abortion and Hittman uses a handheld approach for the camera, really setting up the sense that this is a slice of life that most people either don’t know, or don’t want to know about because it’s a harsh subject. And it’s true, teenage abortions are a tough subject to touch upon without feeling like you’re coming across as preachy, but Hittman manages to approach things with a delicate touch, making it clear that Autumn’s situation is more common than we think and the circumstances surrounding her pregnancy are more complicated than what other people might think.
As much as this is Autumn’s film, Hittman uses these little flashes of reality to remind us how messed up the pro-life argument is in America, not outright attacking anyone but showing how easily they can lead young women in the wrong direction through propaganda. The information video which uses scary language to put fear into already scared women, lying about how far along someone is to take away their choice of having an abortion. Lies and deceit and the way they’re so easily spread course through the film like an underlying wound, we don’t know what brought Autumn to the point of wanting an abortion but she wants one and that’s her choice, the biggest villain of the film is people trying to take that choice away from her. This also factors into the male characters all being skeezy pricks, Jasper especially tries to take Skylar’s choice away from her and probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, the world is often too harsh, too judgmental for young women to feel safe even talking to certain people, by the end of the film there’s still an aftermath that Autumn needs to contend with back home that we don’t get to see. Hittman might have set this up as a teenage abortion film, but her tackling of feminism is America is what takes the entire thing to a whole new level.
When I mentioned 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days at the start, it wasn’t just because it was the only other abortion film I knew about – it is but that’s not the reason why. I mentioned it because where 4 Months is a great film, I never want to see again that uses the political landscape of 80s communist Romania to tell its story. Never Rarely Sometimes Always uses the political landscape of modern-day America to tell its story and it’s just as compelling. The soft, delicate approach to an ugly but often necessary part of life is masterful, taking the troubled life of Autumn and using her as a jumping off point for any teenage girl in the same situation with an uncompromising, unflinching eye but never losing its empathy, it’s understanding, and it’s heart. Add in Flanigan’s phenomenal performance who does so much heavy lifting with just her body language and Hittman’s deft touch behind the camera and you have a great piece worthy of any and all discussion that comes across it. It might not be for everyone, it is a very slow, very deliberate film, but the powerful statement behind it makes it a required viewing.
I’m giving Never Rarely Sometimes Always a 4.5 out of 5 Hairpieces!