Director: Eliza Hittman
Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder
Autumn is a lovely season. And it’s an even lovelier name. The Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) in Beach Rats director Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, too, is a teenage girl caught between a torrid summer and a potentially long and frigid winter. She is neither warm nor cold. But she is the calm before the storm. She can’t afford to be outdoorsy and ideal. She is stoic, silent, almost desensitized, for reasons this film never reveals but quietly hints at. The 17-year-old is pregnant in small-town Pennsylvania, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always – a title that is derived from the four options on the patient questionnaire in abortion clinics – charts her two-day journey to big and boisterous New York City with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to get a secret abortion.
But this young American drama isn’t uplifting or “coming of age”. It’s an unflinching and frank portrait of mature girlhood, as opposed to premature womanhood. By the end, it might dawn upon us that Autumn is a perfect season because it is a brief respite from the imperfections of other seasons. Having no identity is, in many ways, its most powerful identity.
For instance, Autumn spends the first few scenes resisting the identity of “that pregnant schoolgirl” in her hometown. She splashes a glass of water on the face of a bully who disrupts her stage performance. She gets her own sonogram and tests done without telling a soul; she even googles ‘self-abortion’ techniques. She has no intentions of being a Juno. She then spends the rest of the film resisting the identity of being a story – there’s no damsel-in-distress vibe, no guardian angels, no goofy #NotAllMen exceptions. There’s no trust either: She is wary of everyone, no matter how nice they might seem at first. Which is why nobody has a chance to hijack her fate. Nobody has a chance to win her faith.
Not many words are spoken by the two girls. Perhaps because words are futile in a culture ripe with misogynistic action. Autumn and Skylar almost communicate in hidden subtext, sterile body language and invisible mannerisms. Whether they’re working as cashiers or finding an address in chaotic Manhattan, they have learned to understand each other’s faces as a defense mechanism to prevent men from misunderstanding their voices. Who can blame them? Every male they encounter – whether it’s Autumn’s stepfather, the store manager and customers in Pennsylvania, a musician on the bus to New York or a drunk on the subway – is irredeemable and sleazy. Theirs is the kind of existence in which even Tom Hanks might have been a scumbag.
Hittman masterfully casts two untrained actresses whose sense of naturalism is derived from a complete lack of life experience. If they were any older, any famous-er, the pursuit of sheltered sisterhood and emotional numbness would have been too obvious. The 16mm cinematography might have then been visible. The Manhattan highrises might have then been romanticized.
It’s this level of all-round toxicity that explains why we see Autumn being annoyingly self-sufficient. She doesn’t want to rely on anyone, even if it’s for professional or dire situations. In an early scene, we see her painfully piercing her own nose to wear a stud; soon, we even see her trying to excruciatingly abort her own pregnancy with pills and punches. I won’t get into details, but just imagine the sort of childhood that has made her cagey enough to suffer her own unskilled responsibility. They steal money – not borrow, steal – to take the interstate bus, and when the gentle-sounding adults of a New York clinic offer to help with accommodation, she repeatedly declines. Even though they are broke. And even though they have no other options. Not rarely, not sometimes, not always. Just never.
Autumn is so averse to agendaless support that in the long, unbroken questionnaire shot – easily the most non-performative confession of misguided shame in modern cinema, on par with Kaityln Dever’s in Unbelievable – the “yes” is conveyed through tearful breaths, almost as if she can’t believe that her fear actually matters. That someone is actually listening. It’s a hauntingly composed moment, one that will endure in a story of syllables lost rather than adjectives found.
Fortunately, the film doesn’t fixate on the morality and politics of abortion – it simply focuses on the right to choose, and the wrongs a woman must balance to earn that right. Hittman masterfully casts two untrained actresses whose sense of naturalism is derived from a complete lack of life experience. If they were any older, any famous-er, the pursuit of sheltered sisterhood and emotional numbness would have been too obvious. The 16mm cinematography might have then been visible. The Manhattan highrises might have then been romanticized.
Perhaps that’s why the writer-director uses the circularity of gestures – instead of epiphanies or dialogue – to lend her film a sense of shape. Not closure, just shape. The opening scene of Autumn’s stage performance is echoed in a crisis-stricken Karaoke performance later on in the film. Her nose stud shenanigans find completion in the image of the city clinic counsellor, a kind and caring lady, also sporting a nose-ring. The camera gradually panning to reveal Skylar’s hand clutching hers during the procedure is connected to a moment where the camera tilts to reveal Autumn returning the gesture, albeit in equally heartbreaking circumstances. This scene exposes the brutal truth that every act of individualism by a woman often comes at a cost: of her body and sanity or, if she’s lucky, of just her dignity. That the world is a dangerous and damning place for her, even (and especially) when she gets what she needs.
What’s most remarkable about Hittman’s anti-drama is that, eventually, the journey doesn’t feel like an adventurous tale the two girls will grow up to warmly recall during a boozy brunch on a summer morning. It doesn’t feel like an experience that will bond them for life. But they won’t coldly forget it during their wintry reunions either. If anything, it feels like a memory they might need to internalize – wordlessly, privately – to gain a rite of passage into the middling New-York-ness of womanhood. Like Autumn itself, the scar will never be permanent and rarely emerge indoors, but it will sometimes be inspiring and always be felt.