A Dark Coming-of-Age Story for Girls
Updated: May 6, 2020
Image courtesy of Focus Features
Tales of innocence lost and knowledge gained, the male bildungsroman in film runs the tonal gamut from American Graffiti to Stand By Me to Boyhood. It's an adventure story coupled with a rite of passage that signals a shift from childhood to manhood. Director Eliza Hittman's devastating Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a coming-of-age with a difference, an "adventure" defined by a quest, myriad obstacles and a fresh, painful reckoning with the world's injustices, for both protagonist and audience. The quest in this case is 17-year-old Autumn's (Sidney Flanigan) herculean effort to obtain an abortion following sex, the film insinuates, that may not have been her choice. The film's title comes from an interview in a New York City Planned Parenthood office in which Autumn is asked to, essentially, recount her sex life on a rating scale from good to horrific and we see from the camera fixed on her slowly crumpling expression, that her experience has trended toward the miserable.
Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) work in the same grim grocery store in a small Pennsylvania town where they contend with routine indignities — heckling at a high school talent show; a touchy co-worker; leering customers; a depressing home front where an adversarial stepfather casts a pall on Autumn's day-to-day and few options because of age and economic circumstance. These are not the joyous friends of Booksmart, with their whole lives ahead of them, but two young girls for whom life weighs heavy like the sodden, gray winter sky above. Shot on 16-millimeter by cinematographer Hélène Louvart, the look of the film is as naturalistic as they come with something of the spirit and sense of impossible odds of the Italian neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief and the world-battered friendship in another Manhattan opus Midnight Cowboy. Skylar and Autumn's options seem terminally limited and it takes just a few interactions between Autumn and her mother's boyfriend to see the suffocating truth that even at 17, she has few places to turn for comfort. When Autumn learns she is pregnant and unable to receive an abortion without parental consent, she and Skylar set off for New York City at obvious expense and difficulty, trailing a cumbersome rolling suitcase like some sad vestige of home. Once in Manhattan, complications ensue and the wait for the procedure expands as the two young girls wander the city killing time, returning to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to sleep.
In many ways, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is undeniably a film about abortion: about how a legal medical procedure has become increasingly difficult for poor women to access. The film makes heroes of the serene, patient women who work at the Manhattan Planned Parenthood and have probably seen their share of sad stories and help Autumn through the labyrinth of paper work and wellness checks. They are free of judgement, hold her hand when she is finally able to get the procedure and share a network of helpmates in the city who offer their homes if they need a place to stay. The clinicians and those unseen allies feel like members of some underground resistance group in an undeclared war, fighting for the rights of their patients with the odds stacked mercilessly against them.
But Never Rarely Sometimes Always also uses abortion to express the stakes of sexual coming of age for women. At its heart, Hittman's film is about the simple, commonplace circumstance of growing up female and how often the transition from child to woman comes with sexual experiences that can be coerced, unpleasant or simply, determined more by someone else's desires than one's own. That reality is played out when an older teenage boy (Théodore Pellerin) Autumn and Skylar meet on the bus to Manhattan helps them secure the bus fare back to Pennsylvania but expects a sexual transaction from Skylar in return. There's nothing brutal or ugly shown in the bargain but the reality is clear: sex is expected, and something more transactional for girls than a source of pleasure or self-determination.