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“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a cinematic protest for women’s rights

Eliza Hittman’s timely abortion drama is currently streaming on HBO Max.

Eliza Hittman’s timely abortion drama is currently streaming on HBO Max.

Post-election fatigue has now set in for many of us. While the Biden/Harris 2020 ticket emerged victorious in this year’s Presidential election, our long national nightmare is probably far from over. Last month, after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, the Republican majority in the Senate voted to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, which poses a host of concerns, given her record as a judge and strict religious affiliation. While Barrett claims she is not going to let her personal views get in the way of any rulings, this remains to be determined on the matter of abortion rights and Roe v. Wade. Abortion continues to be a wedge issue for conservative neck beards and superstitious hausfraus from coast to coast. But getting an abortion is not, and has never been, some flippant decision made on a whim, and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), now streaming on HBO Max, encapsulates so much of that agony that it’s almost jarring to watch. 

Set in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, the film opens up at a high school talent show in which the theme is showcasing entertainment from the late ‘50s to early ‘60s, harking back to some anachronistic Americana. Autumn (expertly played by newcomer Sidney Flanigan) quickly seems out of place as she sings a song about an abusive boyfriend while a rude teenage boy in the audience heckles her. Her mother (singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten) and family cheer her on, but it is clear there is a sense of isolation from even her immediate family. This persists as Autumn experiences an unplanned pregnancy and tries to decide if she is going to have an abortion. 

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We enter Autumn’s world and her relationship with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who works with her as a cashier in a local supermarket. Hittman wastes no time showing how both girls are under the constant male gaze—creepy patrons of the store hit on them and ask them out even though they are underage. One of their most unsettling encounters actually happens when both girls do the closing cash drop for their registers, and an unseen man on the other end forces them to allow him to kiss their hands repeatedly. Hittman aggressively sets the backdrop for the predatory world in which these girls exist.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always excels so greatly because it allows the visual narrative to tell the story instead of engaging in a lot of verbal exposition. The audience is never explicitly told who impregnated Autumn, outside of a bad interaction she has with a young boy harassing her at a restaurant. What we do know is that she is only 17, but she is sure that having a baby at this juncture in her life is not a good decision. After trying to seek help at a local clinic, she realizes she can’t get the abortion in rural Pennsylvania, so Skylar and Autumn embark on a journey to New York City in order to have it done. Along the way, the film illustrates not only the perceived barriers to getting an abortion, but the actual misinformation and other financial and cultural factors that can impede a young woman’s decision in obtaining a medical procedure.

In one of the film’s more harrowing scenes, Autumn struggles to answer questions that accompany the routine screening. She is able to convey the pain and agony of far too many young women, who, by the time they are her age, have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact or trauma. Anyone watching Flanigan’s performance will quickly realize they know an Autumn or even more tragically, are an Autumn themselves.

Hittman’s story delivers a powerful message, shedding light on both the male gaze and rape culture and how deeply ingrained it is in our society. Too many of us have become numb and hollowed out to how men’s words and behavior can be detrimental to young women. Hopefully, our society is heading in a better direction, although the last election results indicate that nearly half of eligible voters are still holding on to some regressive beliefs. We still need to soldier forth on abortion rights (and beyond) and work on what it is we want to become.

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