[su_dropcap size=”5″]L[/su_dropcap]ast year, a movie called Unplanned quietly came and went from theaters. It was rickety, pedestrian anti-abortion propaganda: Pro-lifers get presented as angelic Gap models, while Planned Parenthood staffers seemed like they should be on the dais at Nuremberg. “We’re in the baby-killing business,” one of them says, her words slithering through a sinister grin. After that hackneyed gibberish, Never Rarely Sometimes Always feels like a welcome journey back to reality. If Unplanned represented a pig slathered in lipstick, Never Rarely is beautiful in its unadorned frankness.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a sullen, withdrawn teenager. Her shambling home life consists of a mom who’s only emotionally present in a passive sense, and a stepdad who probably crunches beer cans on his forehead. It’s not surprising that Autumn goes through life with muted exasperation: Her lips clench tightly together; her eyes always seem to search the ground for answers.
Things get dicey when Autumn learns she’s pregnant. She goes to the clinic in her heehaw hometown and gets almost no help: The cheerfully insipid receptionist offers a horrifying VHS of aborted fetuses and a pamphlet on adoption, both of which only amplify Autumn’s anxiety. Even worse, she learns that an abortion is impossible without permission from her parents.
After that excursion, Autumn stumbles out of the clinic and seeks help from Skylar (Talia Ryder), her cousin and sole confidante. The two decide to trek from their Pennsylvania town into New York City, where the laws are laxer. Now, Autumn has to confront the painful reality of her situation, and navigate the urban sprawl of Manhattan on a dwindling cash supply. Their situation gradually grows more perilous, forcing them to turn to a sketchy young man (Théodore Pellerin) for help.
Writer-director Eliza Hittman makes the bravura decision to strip the film of any showy cinematic artifice. The production feels minimal, the performances hyper-realistic. Conversations between Skylar and Autumn ebb and flow with natural teenage awkwardness. Throughout Never Rarely, Hittman makes us silent traveling companions along the journey. We feel like we’re with the girls as they get kicked out of a bus station or fall asleep in a bowling alley. Their frustration and exhaustion become our own.
For all its minimalism, Never Rarely Sometimes Always is also an example of great screenwriting. So many movies bludgeon us with exposition, like a serial killer with a cricket bat. Here, Autumn is a taciturn individual, conditioned to distrust just about everybody. We only learn information about her when she reluctantly gives it. At one of the clinics, Autumn is forced to answer a questionnaire about her sexual history and pick one of the responses from the movie’s title. This scene reveals painful details about her character, and the questions she refuses to answer offer the most insight. It’s a great example of how to have your characters say a lot without saying anything.
In fact, that’s the greatest strength of this movie as a whole–the larger point it opts not to make. Autumn’s story occupies a paradoxical gray area in what many–if not most–see as a black-and-white issue. She’s a self-contained tragedy, another nameless number on some list of statistics. Unplanned looked at similar subject matter with cheap preachiness, a stilted sermon meant only for the zealots. Never Rarely never resorts to a heavy-handed message, because it knows it doesn’t need to. We simply see Autumn’s story, as is. This ends up being more than enough.
101 min. PG-13.