Autumn Leaves

Amy Taubin on Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, 2020, 16 mm, color, sound, 101 minutes. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan).

IN ELIZA HITTMAN’S SUPERBLY UNDERSTATED Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a seventeen-year-old high schooler named Autumn (Sidney Flanigan, in a strikingly honest and emotionally layered screen debut) needs to have an abortion. Need is the operative word, not want. Autumn’s need is not medical. She needs to able to control her life. She needs to get out of the small failed Pennsylvania town where every man treats every woman as if she’s a punching bag, existing only to prove his power. If she is forced to care for a baby, Autumn knows she’ll never be able to get away.

In Pennsylvania, a minor must have a parent’s consent to have an abortion, but Autumn would never ask her cowed mother or her slimeball stepfather—who may have knocked her up. Hittman leaves that piece of backstory open. We never know for certain if it’s her stepfather or the classmate who slut shames her to his friends. Maybe Autumn herself doesn’t know, and either way, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is Autumn’s need. When she goes to the local women’s health center, the counselor, trying to run out Autumn’s clock, tricks her into thinking she’s only ten weeks pregnant when it’s clear from the sonogram she’s well into her second trimester. “And this is the most magical sound you’ll ever hear. Your baby’s heartbeat,” the counselor says. Autumn turns her face away from the screen and rolls her eyes upward until she sees a sliver of blue sky through a high window. It was at that moment that I knew Never Rarely Sometimes Always was a great film.

In her bedroom, Autumn takes out a large safety pin and uses it, merely, to pierce her nose. Then she googles self-abortion and tries the suggested methods: downing an entire bottle of Vitamin C, punching herself in the stomach till she’s black-and-blue. Nothing works. A few days pass, then finally a plan. Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) pilfer money from the supermarket, where they work as cashiers (the pervy manager is busy grabbing Skylar’s hand when she hands him cash, so maybe he’ll never notice that she’s shorted him). They buy bus tickets to New York City, where Autumn has made an appointment at the Planned Parenthood office she found online, and to skip ahead, yes, dear reader, Autumn has an abortion, and we take leave of her and her cousin on a bus back to Pennsylvania.

Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, 2020, 16 mm, color, sound, 101 minutes. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan).

I never meant to write about this film in a way that fails to make clear that it’s not just a liberal after-school special. I meant to write about the strength of the bones in Autumn’s face, which could have been painted by Holbein, and how beneath her defensive diffidence, there are sparks of hurt and anger that she refuses to admit even to herself. I meant to write about how Hittman rests the film almost entirely on that face (have you ever seen this many close-ups of  a single actor?) and about the collaboration between the director, the actor, and cinematographer Hélène Louvert, whose handheld 16-mm camera is synced to every flicker of inner life and every change of light, from rain-slicked windows to Times Square neon to the harsh fluorescent glare in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where Autumn and Skylar spend parts of two nights. I meant to write about how the softness of the 16 mm recalls films from the ’70s and ’80s about young women trapped in small towns: Barbara Loden’s Wanda and Joyce Chopra’s Straight Talk. And about the delicacy of the soundtrack, which combines Julia Holter’s piano and synth score with snatches of Schumann and Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” which Autumn sings in the karaoke club where she and Skylar go with the smarmy college guy who Skylar eventually gets to pay for their bus ride home. Most of all, I meant to write about the scene that gives the movie its name, where Autumn is gently questioned by the Planned Parenthood counselor, who tells her that she has to ask some questions just to make sure Autumn is safe. All she has to do is answer: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always. Hittman films the scene in one continuous shot, the camera never leaving Autumn’s face, the counselor’s voice coming from off-screen. As Autumn answers, she tries to fight back memories that she habitually keeps at bay. It’s hard for her but she tries to keep her cool until the counselor asks about things that are unspeakable. “Has your partner ever threatened you or frightened you? Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always? Hit you or hurt you?” Autumn’s silence is her answer.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always opened in theaters on March 13 but was almost immediately withdrawn as cinemas shuttered to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. I hope we will have an opportunity to see it on the big screen again, but no matter how we watch—it will be available to stream starting April 3—we will look at it with different eyes. Because as difficult as it would have been for an underage girl like Autumn to get the abortion she needs and has a right to before the COVID-19 lockdown, it would be next to impossible for her to make that journey to New York today. And in Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Iowa, and Kentucky, Republican governors and attorneys general have used the COVID-19 crisis to rule that abortions are “nonessential” services, and that clinics should be closed so that their PPE and intensive care beds (as if abortion clinics had them) could be sent to hospitals. Grotesque as it is to ask women to carry to term children they do not want to have during a pandemic, the misogyny and hypocrisy involved is unsurprising. After all, the former coal industry lobbyist who now heads the EPA just “temporarily” voided all regulations on water and air pollution, on vehicle emissions, on drilling and fracking, and everything else the EPA ever regulated, all under the guise of protecting our great economy. In what seemed like a sensible move, federal judges put a restraining order on the Texas, Ohio, and Alabama abortion restrictions two days after they were issued. A day later, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the Texas ban could go forward. Not to mention that the Supreme Court is currently weighing a Louisiana case that has the potential to unravel the rights secured by Roe v. Wade nearly half a century ago. Watch Never Rarely Sometimes Always and then turn your attention to all the Autumns in the real world, endangered now more than ever before. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to stream on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Xfinity, Vudu, Google Play, and Fandango Now.