Abortion is largely defined by the politics that surround it. Mainstream art and media largely reduce abortion to an issue of political and religious controversy, cultural wars, and Red State legislation. Rarely is it treated as it is: a very personal choice for healthcare.
But “Never Seldom Sometimes Always”, a new film by Eliza Hittman, does just that.
In the coming-of-age drama, Hittman tells a simple story that forces the viewer to recognize the humanity behind this hot button problem. With lean dialogue, subtle action and subjective cinematography, “Never Seldom Sometimes Always” is an intimate portrait of abortion with a strong feminist message.
The story begins in small town Pennsylvania, where Autumn, a quiet seventeen year old girl, leads a bleak life. Autumn is burdened with a troubled private life and embarrassed by peers. She spends her working days at the local grocery store. Her only break from the hostile environment is the unconditional support of Skylar, her cousin and a true ally.
When Autumn finds out she's pregnant – and doesn't want to be – she and Skylar embark on a trip to the nearest available abortion provider, sadly a world away in New York City. The resulting feminist odyssey is full of trials and difficulties that are not mythical but terrifying in their banality.
First the girls have to steal money and sneak out to catch the bus to New York. Then they have to overcome a series of institutional obstacles and delays that leave them bankrupt, desperate and temporarily homeless. In each episode of the journey, Hittman never over-dramatizes the plight of her characters. The reality of seeking abortion as a poor young woman is terrifying enough.
Throughout the film, the innumerable men who fall victim to Autumn and Skylar can be seen: in the subway, an older man masturbates in front of the girls; When Autumn sings on stage, a classmate yells "Slut!" On the bus, Jasper, an older, richer man, uses Skylar's vulnerability and poverty to sexually manipulate her.
But despite their abuse, the villain of "Never Seldom Sometimes Always" isn't one of the characters. Hittman fails to demonize even her most reprehensible subjects – not Autumn's creepy father, not the anti-election clinic worker, not Jasper. Even the teenager who abused, impregnated and abandoned Autumn is hardly a slip in the narrative.
Rather, the antagonist is the millions of iterations of patriarchy that the girls seem to attack at every turn.
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The patriarchy is proving to be a formidable enemy. When the girls run out of money, Skylar must surrender to Jasper's sexual advances in exchange for the bus ride home. When Jasper presses Skylar's body against a dirty pillar, Autumn grabs her cousin's hand and holds it tight.
United against a sea of inexplicable misogyny, they attack one another. This is the silent love story that supports this film: not a romance, but a sisterhood.
The cousins' rich relationship is made possible through the casting of Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder. Flanigan, a singer-songwriter debuting in her first film role, gives the character of fall a rawness. Despite her inexperience – or perhaps because of it – she skillfully embodies the wordless plight of a teenage boy in free fall.
Skylar, played by then 16-year-old actress Ryder, offers a youth and tenderness that add to the precariousness of the trip. Strolling through New York City, the girls look painfully out of place and unarmed against the predatory world around them. They are children who risk their lives for physical autonomy and the collateral damage of the war against women.
But Hittman wisely refrained from exploiting this vulnerability. With so much media wasted on explicit depictions of women's trauma, "Never Seldom Sometimes Always" is not.
In tense moments, Hittman refuses to indulge in melodrama: no explosive fights, no rousing speeches, no revised didactics. Hittman doesn't need any cheap tricks because the abortion landscape in America is scary in itself. She doesn't exaggerate. And she doesn't need that.
It's realistic which makes it so annoying.
This is the emotional abstinence that makes "Never Seldom Sometimes Always" such an effective feminist film. Where another director has taken advantage of Autumn's encounter with her perpetrator or challenged Jasper's sexual aggression, Hittman doesn't. Her writing is sparse with dialogue – she relies on subtext and trusts the audience to fill in what Autumn experienced for themselves. The most moving lines are unspoken.
The subjectivity, subtext, and self-control of the film are most effective in the scene immediately before the abortion. The scene begins with a social worker asking Autumn a litany of worldly questions about allergies, anesthesia, and nutrition, asking her to answer "Never", "Seldom", "Sometimes" or "Always". The conversation drags on Autumn doesn't have the luxury of fast-forwarding, and neither do we. Eventually the social worker turns to heavier subjects and autumn becomes less and less sure of her answers.
"Did your partner make you have sex when you didn't want to?" asks the social worker. "Has your partner ever hit, hit, or physically injured you?"
The tearful silence of autumn speaks for them. For more than eight minutes, the camera remains trained on the flood of emotions that flash inarticulately across her face.
It's a beautiful choice that embodies the power of this movie. By bringing the viewer so close to the inwardness of the protagonist, Hittman forces us to understand what it means to be autumn and forces the viewer to empathize with the millions of autumn months that exist in this world.
"Can you tell me what led to your decision to terminate this pregnancy?" asks the social worker. It's a subject barely touched on by the film because Hittman is more interested in hearing Autumn than asking her to explain herself.
Autumn examines the question and then answers. "I'm just not ready to be a mother."
As simple as that.
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