Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

Dir. Eliza Hittman. Starring Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin

After Autumn (Flanigan) has gotten her first appointment finished at the Manhattan Planned Parenthood, she’s back in a transit station with Skylar (Ryder). Autumn is taciturn, perhaps more actively standoffish and brusque with her cousin than she is at any other point in the movie. Skylar, who at this point has been in New York much longer than she bargained for and with far less immediate purpose than Autumn, is antsy. She is reliant on Autumn for plans, and Autumn is not forthcoming. What do you want me to do? Skylar finally asks, and Autumn tells her to fuck off. Skylar does so. Her seat is taken, after a cut, by a man. He’s an adult. He’s generic. He’s terrifying. He doesn’t do anything. He’s just sitting there, but Never Rarely Sometimes Always is about the potential. It is realized again and again, not every time but enough so that you can expect it’s coming, that men are creeps. This movie takes up less than a week in Autumn’s life, runs for short of two hours, and makes it impossible living another day with that much well-earned dread. At this point in the movie, the sight of a man, no matter what he’s doing, is loathsome and fearful.

The abortion that Autumn is after turns out to be a far trickier process than she envisions. Her clinic at home misinforms her about how far along she is, and the operation for a second trimester abortion requires multiple days in New York City with extremely limited capital and even fewer ways of gaining more. It’s fair to wonder how much she sleeps over the course of this sojourn before she drifts off on the bus ride home. Yet that process is, for as much as it costs and as emotionally draining as it is for her, is for the most part a fairly gentle one. People speak softly to her, politely, with obvious care for her wellbeing. A social worker (Kelly Chapman) reading questions off a form and giving Autumn some room to cry is the calmest, nicest presence in maybe the entire movie. The danger is outside Planned Parenthood, and that danger is in the men, any one of whom might be physically abusive, creepy, frightening, lewd.

Some men are merely unhelpful, like the guy who gives Autumn and Skylar very precise but very unclear directions about how to get to their destination in Brooklyn. The men from Elysburg, especially those who can smell how captive Autumn and Skylar are at their jobs at Boyer’s, are creeps. The way their manager leers through his office glass at them, the way one slob pushes and pushes for Skylar to join him at some party (a strong word for whatever torpid drunkenness one assumes this fellow is going to engage in later on). On hearing that Autumn’s got a stomach bug (not that it’s a stomach bug), their manager is annoyed. Without a trace of sympathy for his puking inferior, he asks why she can’t just stay and finish her shift. Whether or not she might ralph on someone’s groceries or on her shoes is not on his mind. Being able to exert control over her presence is what he finds most important here, the ability to say no. As for Skylar’s haggard suitor (absolutely old enough to be her dad), he does what men continue to do throughout the movie, particularly with her. He refuses to take a hint. Skylar makes the mistake of making an amiable comment about the plastic shotglasses and ping-pong balls the guy is buying (or who knows, maybe it’s just the magic of providing a pleasant experience for the customers), and seeing a sliver of light through this crack in the door, he leaps for it. The door closes on him, and then he knocks, and he continues knocking until there’s a cut. It’s not as simple as waiting for the guy to have to move on from the line; editing makes it so that this vignette doesn’t actually have a finite ending. Closure requires some kind of ending first, and the harassment in Never Rarely Sometimes Always does not end. It’s always waiting.

The thing that happens most often in Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the quid pro quo. There’s a scene in the film where Autumn is talking through payment options for her abortion with a woman who does the financials. Part of the reason that scene is in there, of course, is because we need to see Autumn pay for this surgery in cash, refusing to use the insurance that would send a statement to her parents. It strips the girls of their funds and forces them into a vulnerability that neither one planned for. (Skylar is the one who comes up with the funding for this trip by stealing from her cash register at work. The movie does not force them to deal with the consequences of the theft, but then again, what would we really gain watching Skylar get fired in some post-credits scene?) I think it’s just as important to see an exchange of things, whatever those things happen to be, done with some kind of civility. Seeing as I’m neither related to people who own insurance companies nor a candidate for elected office, I can’t say I think very highly of our healthcare system in this country, but the way that the discussion goes with this woman at her desktop at the Planned Parenthood is at least polite. There is no innuendo here. The woman from the clinic is the one who holds the power, but she does not dangle it over Autumn’s head. When Autumn declines to pay with insurance, the woman hardly blinks. We’ll set up an alternate payment plan, she suggests, and the whole exchange is one that’s managed with some dignity. The quid pro quo is in here a couple times, but the person who does it most is Jasper (Pellerin). Jasper is a little older than Autumn and Skylar, and like virtually every other guy who runs into them, he is quickly taken with Skylar. He strikes up a conversation with her, praises the virtues of New York City, loves the way that the city forces people to interact who might not. Skylar, who has enough snark to blunt men’s initial thrusts (a practiced skill as opposed to a natural gift, surely), suggests that’s sort of like the bus they’re on. Jasper then brings up some live music he wants to see. He wants her number. She doesn’t want to give him her number. He gets her number. Later on, the two of them, flat out of money and unable to get home short of calling a parent to drive 170 miles one way on I-80, page him. Skylar is prepared; she reapplies her spiky eyeliner, puts some concealer under Autumn’s tired eyes. She knows that guys like Jasper will not simply help. They will expect entertainment, pleasure, a little thrill; he ends up getting bowling, karaoke, and some light making out where Autumn, in the movie’s most sympathetic moment, reaches out to her cousin’s hand to bind her to something decent. Pellerin is good in this role. The character presents like a “nice guy,” someone just out for a decent time, which is all the evidence we need that this guy is a scumbag.

Autumn’s home life is not much referred to, except for her to hide her pregnancy and her operation from her parents. Her dad is uncanny and strange, almost an unperson, alien from actual events in front of him, disinterested in what’s happening. There is never a reason given for what might have pushed him so far out of the world in front of him, or why he seems to react a few seconds late to everything, or why he seems to be trying to focus his vision like there’s a scrim six inches in front of his face. Autumn’s performance at a school talent show is met with derision from a boy somewhere in the audience—no matter, she starts the song again and then throws a glass of water in his face at the restaurant where they both are post-performance—but more surprisingly is met with complete apathy from her dad. Her mother tries to prod her father to say something nice about it (although this request is also so loud and plain that even a slightly clueless mom would recognize that whatever compliment she prodded her husband into would be meaningless), and he gets about 25% of the way there. The film is not particularly interested in the identity of Autumn’s baby’s father. By her count she’s had six partners in her life, and no one gets fingered as the culprit at any point. If we were to bet on this, it’d be wisest to take the field, I think, even though most of the men Autumn interacts with over the course of the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the movie seem as likely as anyone else. Is it her boss at work, watching from his window? Is it that mouthy kid she gives a cold shower to in the restaurant? Is it her distant, bizarre father? They all seem like possibilities, all seem like suspects. There’s no point in the movie where Autumn shies away from completing the abortion. All three of those people would make compelling reasons not to keep this baby. The reason I’d still take the field is because I can’t imagine any man who Autumn might have met who she might want the physical evidence of, let alone one that screams all night.

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