Meet Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder): two quiet, impoverished teens from rural Pennsylvania. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a film released in the U.S. on March 13 and currently available on Amazon Prime, chronicles their tense journey to New York City in order for Autumn to terminate her unplanned pregnancy. With Autumn fleeing an unsupportive family and community, the pair encounter a nearly countless series of micro-aggressions, insinuations and examples of outright sexual harassment. The threat of assault, sexual or not, helps nurture a pervasive anxiety that looms, quite effectively, over the plot. In short, the film paints a striking portrait of the fears that accompany the experience of being a teenage girl in the U.S. without melodrama or pretense. It draws attention to the incomprehensible amount of obstacles a young woman, already in distress, must circumnavigate in order to obtain an abortion.
From the beginning of the film, the men in Autumn’s life, including her own father and an implied previous sexual partner, both belittle and shame her for her supposed sexual promiscuity. One of her male peers makes an obscene gesture indicating oral sex to her within the first 10 minutes of the movie. As she begins to notice her growing stomach, a woman at a conservative pregnancy agency confirms her pregnancy. Returning home to pierce her nose with a safety pin, Autumn begins researching the abortion laws in her state of Pennsylvania. In doing so, the 17-year-old learns that she cannot have an abortion without parental consent. Unable to communicate to her emotionally unavailable and often absent parents, she enlists the help of her cousin Skylar to accompany her to New York.
That being said, she in no way intentionally tells Skylar about her pregnancy. During one of their shifts at the local supermarket, Skylar follows her to the bathroom where she finds Autumn retching. Then Autumn reveals the truth. Stealing from their employer, they leave for the city. However, even this pilfered cash proves insufficient when it comes to paying for the expenses that accompany both the procedure itself and life in New York City. Cash proves to be elusive as the girls have no financial support from their families, and its acquisition works as the driving force behind the plot in the latter half of the film.
Autumn and Skylar maintain an intimate relationship that transcends the need for spoken language. Occasional moments of dialogue intersperse scenes of them silently riding the subway, sitting side-by-side in a waiting room or walking the city streets. This silence is not uncomfortable. Rather, it indicates the durability and intensity of the pair’s relationship, highlighting their ability to communicate without words. Even when minor conflicts surface between them, the two remain indomitably close and reliant on one another as they navigate bureaucracy and male predators alike.
Nearly all men pose a sexual threat to both girls. Completely inappropriate behaviors, such as their boss kissing their hands at the conclusion of their shifts, are nevertheless normalized as both Autumn and Skylar encounter them regularly. In this way, it undermines the contemporary idea, that exists in certain circles, that women no longer face systemic and subtle harassment from men. When the pair runs out of money, they are forced to consider ways they can make enough to pay for their fare back to Pennsylvania. Without proper lodging, support or resources, the girls have little prospects to earn enough cash save for one. Ultimately, Skylar reluctantly goes on a date with Jasper, a boy she met on the bus who eventually ends up “loaning” the pair a couple hundred for their return trip. This transaction is not an innocuous one. Jasper touches Skylar’s thighs throughout the night despite her visible discomfort. After discussing their plans following bowling and karaoke, Autumn finds Jasper kissing Skylar against a pillar. Understanding that this sexual interaction is required in order for the pair to receive the loan, Autumn chooses to not interrupt, instead extending her hand to Skylar from behind the other side of the column.
Autumn’s refusal to open up to nearly anyone in the film, caused in part by her prior sexual and physical abuse, makes it difficult to watch at times. In arguably the most emotional, paralyzing scene, Autumn talks honestly about her past with an assigned counselor during her visit to Planned Parenthood, but even this moment of catharsis remains stifled, pained and short. After numerous delays, Autumn is finally able to undergo the abortion procedure, but the relief appears to be only temporary as the duo travel back to the place and people that could easily begin inflicting pain upon them again. The neo-realistic cinematography, which includes long, interrupted shots of the girls’ faces, makes the characters all the more convincing and tangible.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” refuses to shy away from the uncomfortable reality that women face in both public and private spaces in the U.S. Featuring stellar performances from the two leading actresses, it highlights the fact that misogyny and objectification have endured and continue to be practiced by men in all aspects of society. Paired with striking visuals and sparse dialogue that constructs a rich subtext, the film works as a spellbinding case study of two desperate young women while never losing its political and social impact on the viewer. Gender inequity, harassment and violence are still in place; “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” exists as a dark and heartbreaking reminder.