A positive is always a positive.
The title to Eliza Hittman‘s Never Rarely Sometimes Always has a specific meaning in that those are the choices a Planned Parenthood counselor (Kelly Chapman) provides seventeen-year old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) as answers to a difficult yet crucial line of questioning about her psychological and physical wellbeing. Hittman films the scene as a continuous take with the camera never leaving this teen girl’s face as each query hits home for us to interpret her tears as the unspoken truth of life experiences too many women know too well. Beyond this literal use, however, those four words also apply as responses to every single moment Autumn is forced to interact with a man. The overarching question is simple: How often do men treat you like a possession?
In America’s current state of Christian patriarchal rule, the answer is simpler: Always. A classmate calls Autumn a slut. Her stepfather (Ryan Eggold) refuses to compliment her because he doesn’t believe she accepts compliments like a woman should. (He also enjoys calling his dog a slut because she lets him pet her stomach—so read between the lines on his true thoughts about any female life form.) There are instances of a manager where Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) work taking advantage of the power dynamic he wields via sexual overtones and moments where a man’s kindness is held conditionally in a quid pro quo he forces his victim into initiating for his own sinister sense of absolution. The unchecked entitlement of these men is repugnant.
And Hittman isn’t embellishing its pervasive hold over the everyday lives of women. She’s merely using it to highlight the result: an unshakable fear, futility, and desperation tied to the judgment placed upon every action they take. It exists in the terror felt when Autumn learns she’s pregnant and in the sensationalized video her local Pennsylvania clinic screens to scare girls into having their babies—an act of coercion as manipulative and damaging as that of a prospective father forcing his partner into either a pregnancy or abortion himself. It’s present in wanting to keep the details under wraps from her mother (Sharon Van Etten), in worrying about going to New York City to maintain her anonymity, and confronting the incalculable number of propositions endured along the way.
Autumn and Skylar don’t therefore have a choice. When their insular world projects a double-standard upon their gender, (Why else could a boy who probably fathered Autumn’s baby be able to call her slut and not face the identical repercussions for participating in the exact same act?), they’re forced to fend for themselves in an effort to uphold that unfair image and seek solace somewhere that doesn’t judge so harshly. That means escaping the wrath of their hometown to invite the equally dangerous opportunism of the big city. It means dealing with shameless men holding one thought on their mind instead of aging would-be nuns with but one on theirs too. The situation becomes paramount to their health the moment reputation is valued higher than a child’s safety.
Go ahead and spew the false equivalence that Autumn’s embryo demands equal safety because it’s that thought process that has gotten her in this situation. This idea that an unborn group of cells deserves more love than the fully formed human such callously disingenuous rhetoric helps to harm irreparably is what has scared her into silence. That silence enlisted Skylar’s help to jump onto a series of buses and subways towards Manhattan without anyone but the flirtatious young man (Théodore Pellerin‘s Jasper) they tried to ignore knowing where they are. Suddenly this teenager who has been pressured into being what men want her to be is left utterly alone in a foreign city without money or direction. Suddenly she and Skylar must leverage men’s sexual desire to survive.
It’s a devastating turn of events with the potential to fall down much darker pathways than Hittman takes while also shining the light on just how dark this authentic trail is on its own. The filmmaker embraces emotional ramifications in lieu of physical abuse so she can expose how the tense uncertainty and horror of their affect is no less potent. She shows that gaslighting is a weapon used by men and women alike while revealing how terms like “rape” and “consent” carry a lot more nuance than victim-blamers would like to believe as adolescent conditioning warps the concepts of sex, maturity, and prudishness to solely fit the male’s fantasy at the female’s expense. The number of contextual layers present within each scene almost seems impossible.
But they’re there nonetheless, perpetually in concert with previous scenes and experiences. Hittman packages everything into an intimate scale of close-ups and unspoken glances proving how Autumn and Skylar truly have no one but each other to rely upon as circumstances grow direr once their planned one-day trip turns into three. And while Flanigan has been garnering a majority of the praise where the acting is concerned, Ryder’s portrayal as the supportive cousin shouldn’t be disregarded. Her Skylar understands the severity of what’s happening and knows that it’s not personal when Autumn lashes out. She’s here for the long haul and will do anything to ensure they complete what they set out to accomplish. She doesn’t need a verbal “thank you” because she’s not doing this for praise.
Autumn similarly doesn’t need to be told everything will be okay because she knows those words are an empty promise. Not only will this abortion attempt leave psychological scars regardless of its effectiveness, but she’ll also have to reenter a world that already stacked the dominoes heavily against her before. Flanigan thus earns all the accolades received for the depiction. We feel the weight of the situation through her performance as she jumps through the myriad hoops necessary to claim autonomy over her body from society, religion, and men—even as that trio continues threatening her while doing so. That it’s a stranger who finally holds her hand in support isn’t therefore a coincidence because in that moment they no longer are. In that moment they’re women surviving.
 Sidney Flanigan stars as Autumn in NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features
 Talia Ryder stars as Skylar and Théodore Pellerin as Jasper in NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Angal Field/Focus Features
 Sidney Flanigan stars as Autumn in NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Angal Field/Focus Features