“One of the rawest and most poignant coming-of-age stories of modern cinema”
It is often the case that filmmakers seek to portray femininity on screen but take liberties in idley glossing over the macabre realities that are encompassed within. It is rare that a global, authentic narrative on womanhood is produced. Even in the cases where the female experience is genuinely examined, where female viewers feel their bodily and cultural experiences portrayed on screen where other viewers are also permitted to feel the experiences of these female characters, there is so much left to tell about womanhood. There is so much uncharted territory in female corporeality – so many feelings, so many discomforts, so many pleasures that have yet to traverse the screen. Eliza Hittman is dauntless as she saunters into these nebulous shadows to tell what is one of the rawest and most poignant coming-of-age stories of modern cinema.
Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always examines a pocket of the American class system not often shown on the big screen: lower middle-class rural white families in Pennsylvania. These are areas not far from big cities like Philadelphia and New York, however, they do not adopt the same liberal attitudes, and instead are decorated with conservatism and Christianity. Autumn, a seventeen-year-old girl, lives the life of so many others from this wedge of America. She attends the local high school, works at the local supermarket with her cousin, and has a distant, tense relationship with her parents. Autumn wears combat boots, hides herself in oversized hoodies, and is mocked and even denigrated when performing in school talent shows. Despite the seemingly mundaneness of her life, her normal existence as a teenager fully removed from the bustling social spheres of suburban high schools, Autumn encounters a life-altering roadblock when she learns that she is pregnant.
Void of friends and a positive relationship with her parents (especially her father), Autumn must resort to the only community resource available to her: a women’s clinic remiss of secular foundations that would provide her the necessary support for a teenager not seeking to stay pregnant. Etching this traditionalist American setting as a backdrop, Hittman paints a portrait of a young woman drowning in solitude, thwarted by a patriarchal society operating unhindered by an environment that allows it to flourish so naturally. Autumn’s story, as it would traditionally be told in cinema, would not equally convey the degree of patriarchal malice against young women in her situation; we have comedies like in Juno, high school dramatization like in Glee, but no depiction ever reaching the same level of detail and potency on the reality of unwanted teen pregnancy and abortion. However, Hittman validates Autumn and her experience. She lends her protagonist empathy by telling her story through the lens of the female gaze – allowing the viewers to experience the transfer of Autumn’s pain and struggle. This is not just another teen pregnancy story.
No part of this young woman’s story, neither critical nor anodine, appears to be left out of the film. We bear witness to the initial tensions Autumn has with her school peers and parents, her emotional strife in trying to advocate for herself at the women’s clinic, her admission to her cousin on her pregnancy, and the journey the two of them take to New York where the closest Planned Parenthood is located to perform the abortion. It should not be a spoiler, but rather an expectation. The viewers are walked through Autumn’s experience, as if to be in her shoes all the way through her abortion – from the bureaucratic paper work, to the sexual and health history questionnaires, to managing the payment, all the way until Autumn is anesthetized (and the viewers are, as well, with a shot simulating what it’s like to be ‘put under’).
By way of these events, as a separate yet integrated layer, Hittman employs a post #MeToo dimension, that manifests in the transparency of the day-to-day sexual harassment and assault that women experience, even though it is not technically the focus of the story. This is similar to how we are told to not allow it to be the focus of our lives with purposeful ignorance and dampening of women’s voices. In showing these images on screen, Hittman plays a role in the subversion of this dangerous taboo that has damaged so many lives; even more so, she does this consistently throughout the film. These efforts in screenwriting and mise-en-scène attest to the wave of voices participating in the activism of cinema, as our lives carry out so much reflection from what is projected in front of us, onscreen or not.
Director: Eliza Hittman
Screenplay: Eliza Hittman
Cinematography: Hélène Louvart
Producers: Adele Romanski, Elika Portnoy, Alex Orlovsky, Lia Buman, Tim Headington, Rose Garnett, Sara Murphy
Cast: Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin