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Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Peter W Sheehan  |  22 October 2020

NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS. Starring: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Kelly Chapman, and Theodore Pellerin. Also, Ryan Eggold, and Sharon Van Etten. Directed by Eliza Hittman. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 101 min.

This American drama tells the story of a young woman who travels to New York with a close friend to seek support for an unwanted pregnancy. The film won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the 70th. International Film Festival in Berlin in 2020.

In Pennsylvania, US, 17-year-old, Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan), goes to a local crisis pregnancy centre in her home town of Allentown. While there, she confirms she is pregnant, and is given literature on adoption and shown an anti-abortion video. After trying unsuccessfully to induce a miscarriage, she confides to her best friend and cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), that she is pregnant. Autumn steals money from where she works to purchases bus tickets for a trip to New York City (NYC), hoping for an abortion in a city that does not require parental consent.

In NYC, Autumn is interviewed by a social worker (Kelly Chapman) at a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Brooklyn, where she haltingly answers probing questions about her sexual history to indicate that her previous male partners were sexually abusive. Autumn is given legal clearance for an abortion, has the abortion, but is reluctant to answer Skylar’s questions about what she went through. The film concludes with the two girls travelling back to Pennsylvania, and the consequences of Autumn’s decision remain unexplored.

The film’s title reflects evocatively the four multiple-choice response-alternatives associated with the questions about Autumn’s sexual history that the social worker asks. Pushed to respond, Autumn’s reserve collapses, and she emotionally admits to the abuse which has occurred. The film is a powerful drama that focuses first and foremost on Autumn’s distress. The film is unsparing, but never uncaring, in the detail of what has happened to Autumn. Both Autumn and Skylar are trying to cope with a world of predatory masculinity that surrounds them – a world where a young man (Theodore Pellerin) thinks sexual contact is the best way of getting a girl’s attention.

The film has forceful impact. Autumn is lonely, distressed, fearful, abused, and psychologically distraught. Regardless of where viewers stand on the issues the film raises, the overarching impact of the film is its compassionate portrayal of Autumn’s pain. Abortion might be easy to obtain in New York, but the film communicates to viewers exactly that abortion is an experience that will never be forgotten by Autumn and her cousin. In editing, cinematography, acting, and style of direction, the film has a strong documentary feel. It is a fictional account, however, of a young woman’s fear-arousing journey following her decision to abort.

The acting of Sidney Flanigan, as Autumn, is outstanding. Her naturalistic performance is moving, as the camera roams revealingly in close-ups of her, and those she is with. The film's director, Eliza Hittman, doesn’t lecture. The movie stays firmly focused on all that Autumn is experiencing. Autumn and Skylar are exposed to multiple sexual encounters, and the film’s tone creates a strong sense of tension and dread that is absorbing. The film doesn't query the choice that Autumn has made, but neither is it polemically pro-abortion. It aims primarily to present Autumn’s suffering in a highly realistic way. Though accepting of Autumn’s private choice to obtain an abortion, the salience and authenticity of the film’s compassionate stance remains the movie’s chief concern.

Acknowledging the necessity to ethically defend what’s right in threats to life, this film fails to do so, but it is a movie that highlights the need to examine the nature of the relationship that presently exists between organised pro-choice and pro-life advocacy. The film argues forcibly that 'reaching-out' must address the pain that exists. The film conveys unequivocally that suffering and misery occur in attempts to take life, and efforts to help, to visit choices made, to educate, or to morally guide, will fail if genuine compassion is not also present and communicated.

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of Jesuit Media
Universal Pictures International
Released 29 October 2020



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