A low-key knockout, “Never Rarely Sometimes Maybe” tells a seldom-told story about abortion. And it does so without cant, speeches, inflamed emotions and — most powerfully — without apology. At its most obvious, it follows a 17-year-old as she tries to terminate her pregnancy. It’s a seemingly simple objective that proves (no surprise given the battles over abortion) logistically difficult, forcing her to marshal her modest resources and navigate perilous twists and turns. Here, a woman’s right to self-determination has become the stuff of a new and radical heroic journey.
That odyssey begins in a central Pennsylvania town where Autumn (the excellent newcomer Sidney Flanigan) is struggling at home and everywhere else. Her mother seems loving and supportive, but also overtaxed from caring for a family that also includes two younger children. Autumn’s stepfather, by contrast, is infantile and aggressively petulant, and seems eager to run her down at every opportunity. (He also has a seriously icky way of playing with the family’s female dog.) Autumn’s more immediate problem is that she’s pregnant and isn’t ready to be a mother.
Physically closed in and unsmiling, outwardly surly and inwardly despairing, Autumn doesn’t quip her way out of trouble or even talk that much. You probably know that girl; maybe you were that girl. She makes bad choices, dumb mistakes, rolls her eyes. She can be casually mean, but isn’t cruel. What she is is viscerally — gratifyingly — real, which makes her more like the blissfully imperfect (if more comic) heroine of a feminist cri de coeur like “Eighth Grade” than the plucky, unthreatening girls that mainstream film loves. All of which makes Autumn part of a slow-moving transformation that, movie by movie, is redefining the roles women play onscreen.
With manifestly unshowy, superb technique, the writer-director Eliza Hittman (“Beach Rats”) eases into “Never Rarely” with Autumn performing in a school talent show. The theme of the show seems to be teeny-bopping to the oldies, complete with a tragic Elvis impersonator. Autumn, with her pink satin baseball jacket, looks ready to rock ‘n’ roll in a “Grease” revival even if her acoustic guitar and glittery silver eye makeup suggest she’s also doing her own thing. “He makes me do things I don’t wanna do,” Autumn sings, braving it alone onstage and turning a 1963 pop hosanna into something close to a mournful protest. “He’s got the power, the power of love over me.”
The talent show’s canned nostalgia — with its boy-girl couplings and intimations of Eisenhower-era norms — offers a quick, incisive contrast with the image of Autumn tremulously pouring her heart out. It’s a shrewdly economical set piece that both demonstrates Hittman’s gift for visually driven storytelling and situates Autumn in a world that you want to pluck her right out of. She seems so alone, so out of time and place. But it’s also a bit of misdirection. Because when Autumn keeps singing, even after a smirking guy in the audience heckles her, Hittman has already defined what kind of girl this is. Only a few minutes in and it’s obvious that she can save herself.
After some hurdles and missteps, Autumn sets off. With a cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder, touchingly delicate), she buys a bus ticket to New York, where a minor doesn’t need parental permission to obtain an abortion, unlike in her home state. The trip is banal but comes with the customary perils, including the unavoidable loser (Théodore Pellerin) who’s always on the make. When — uninvited — he touches Skylar to get her attention, Hillman cuts to a close-up of his pale hand on Skylar’s body, holding the shot long enough so that there is no ambiguity about the depth and meaning of this superficially casual gesture: its arrogance, its privilege, its sense of ownership.
Hittman is telling a story but she’s also making a quietly fierce argument about female sovereignty. Autumn wants to get an abortion, take control of her life and her body. But the world doesn’t make it easy (never does). She needs a clinic, money, bus tickets and the ability to get herself from one state to another and then negotiate New York City. She has to figure out the subway, dodge creeps and find one place to eat and another to sleep. (Odysseus at least had a ship.) In “Never Rarely,” the hurdles to an abortion are as legion as they are maddening and pedestrian, a blunt political truism that Hittman brilliantly connects to women’s fight for emancipation.
That battle is at the center of a gut punch of a scene in which Autumn, using only the four words in the film’s title, answers a health worker’s questions about her health, sexual history and partners. It’s a simple, stripped-down scene: just two women talking in an office. Scene by scene, with understated realism and lightly gritty visuals, Hittman has been bringing you close to Autumn, whose face rarely betrays her. Now, though, as Autumn responds to questions about sex and boys, she cracks. And, suddenly, her innermost world — with its private agonies and power struggles — opens up and she is ripping your heart out with a face that now mirrors your own.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Rated PG-13 for adults themes and creepy guys. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes.