Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, US)

By Courtney Duckworth

One May evening, I dipped into a Twitch stream in search of a fresh current. Within the weird undertow of quarantine, there is a new lustre to these live events, which mark unfixed days with a fixed hour—a dupe for the transient communion gone from cinemas that now lie empty. Some 200 of us “gathered” for a program, co-presented by Screen Slate and Electronic Arts Intermix, of short works from Cecelia Condit, a singular scrambler of feminine tropes and fairy tales since the ’80s. New to me among them was last year’s We Were Hardly More than Children, an oneiric memoir. From my laptop came Condit’s molasses-slow singsong: “In 1969, we were told that if you could afford it, you flew to London. Otherwise there was a third floor in Mexico and a basement in Brooklyn.” Right away it’s clear she is recounting an abortion; few other practices are so deafeningly secret or so bound up in money, place, and time: where and when one lives, how far one can go, whether cash is needed and, if so, what’s on hand.

Such capricious illogic means what was lawful in the US after 1973 was criminal a decade prior. Wrong place, wrong time. Hence, in the film, one woman swallows an unbranded abortion pill and falls asleep, and another wakes to the metallic scent of blood pooling on white sheets. Something is wrong. Though dying, the woman is as insensate as an enchanted princess, and so her friend must bear her to the hospital, where hostile doctors remark that she would have been gone within 15 minutes. Playing the friend, Condit marvels at how swiftly the story could have soured: “What if I hadn’t been there that night?” But what if there had been no story? “What if abortions hadn’t been illegal?” These well-worn questions still vex our precarious present, where access to health care is shifting, quicksand-like, underfoot.

Eliza Hittman depicts one of countless possible answers to Condit’s queries in her latest feature, Never Rarely Sometimes Always. The unhappily expectant protagonist, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), resides in a coal town in Pennsylvania, one of many states where she cannot choose to have an abortion without parental consent because she is just shy of 18. (Wrong place, wrong time.) Funds, too, are low in her blue-collar neighbourhood. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who previously collaborated with Hittman on Beach Rats (2017), compresses Autumn’s homelife into a tableau of depletion, as her mom (Sharon Van Etten, a singer-songwriter whose songlessness here evokes squashed talent) shoves shirts wearily over the heads of two much younger girls before draping a neon construction jacket around her belligerent stepdad (Ryan Eggold). Outside the house, Autumn’s hours are sapped by her supermarket job, where her boss peers behind a one-way mirror and lecherously smooches his female cashiers’ hands as they deposit the day’s earnings. Little wonder that, later, when Autumn is asked how she spends her time, she musters a weak “Work… School…” and then trails off. 

Of course, pregnancy is a function of time. Precious days are squandered when Autumn, wary of her tumid belly (she examines her paunch in the mirror in a bit demonstrating Hittman’s gift for weighty real-time staging), wanders into a chintz-draped clinic staffed by solicitous women (played by real-life physicians and support workers). Skeptical, Autumn is given a store-bought test in a baby-pink box—“a positive is always a positive,” chirps an assistant—along with brochures on adoption and “the rights and responsibilities of the father,” and is instructed to return another day. Only then does someone perform an ultrasound that finds her—incorrectly, we discover afterward, and perhaps purposely—ten weeks pregnant, when she is really 18. 

While Hittman gradually reveals the pointed partisanship of this crisis pregnancy centre—a nonprofit often lacking a medical license that exists to coax its patients away from abortion—she is less interested in the ideological barriers to a potential procedure than the material ones: bus and subway fare, a suitcase hauled up and down stairs and broken escalators, multi-day medical treatments, public spaces that taunt the adrift and unhomed with their pointlessly policed emptiness. To finance her journey, Autumn and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), whose limpid baby blues are compassionately attuned to her changing moods, skim from the grocery store’s till—a hitch awaiting them back home, when they return. Their wordless companionship provides a mild but refreshing balm, even as it’s punctured by the intrusions of a doltish, college-aged man (Théodore Pellerin) who’s going their way on the Greyhound but has other destinations in mind.

The film’s road-trip structure suggests suspense, but significantly there are no surprises. Autumn doesn’t say why she wants to get an abortion—the narrative doesn’t ask her to—and she does. Because films are durational, i.e. felt time, the process of watching Never Rarely is affecting precisely because of its chosen medium. Viewers must experience with the characters the small, minute-by-minute frustrations that crop up during their quest, with its mild diversions and plausibly perilous detours. Hittman has cited as an influence Bresson’s Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956), and she emulates the stringent materialism of her model by stripping away most extraneous detail: the identity of the baby’s father, the sexual act that led to the pregnancy, full-throated ideological debates, or even open discussions between the women about what they are going through. The focus visually, as well as narratively, is on Autumn and Skylar’s friendship and whether it will hold: the camera remains sensitively close to their faces, avoiding long shots that would locate them within a larger world that threatens to flatten them, capturing small gestures— foundation tenderly applied to under-eye bags, fingers interlocking in solidarity, a shared glance at the sky—that remind us that they are hardly more than children. Even when abortion protesters are seen outside a clinic, Louvart keeps them out of focus for most of the shot, training instead on Skylar’s eyes as she glances sideways at Autumn (whether as an expression of her own fear and uncertainty, or to make sure Autumn is okay); Planned Parenthood—an organization that cannot escape being politicized in the US—is represented only by its raised logo on a rug and repeated scenes of the women being searched by security.

This pressurization and sense of purpose makes Never Rarely very different from Hittman’s other work, a corpus of idle teenhood where there is only dead time. It Felt Like Love, her 2013 debut, and Beach Rats are both chronicles of summers in which bored adolescents, hounded by unwelcome desires or deadened by dull, endless days, struggle to fill the interminable hours. In these features as well as her shorts, characters emerge but do not detach from Hittman’s vivid background textures, the appealing jumble of everyday life: white ice skates knocking against the door, woven friendship bracelets fraying above clasped hands, a boasting boy’s silver chain nestling in his sweat-slicked neck, a girl slipping a pilfered Lipsmackers tube into the sleeve of her flannel bomber. Tempo becomes texture: school is out, each week is marked by fireworks at Coney Island, parents are away on murkily defined jobs or lying listless around the house, and televisions are only ever tuned to dead channels, their blue static a reflection of the characters’ bootless malaise. This torpor creates more space for the viewer to linger with these protagonists in their native habitats: their rooms, the spaces they made and that made them.

Watching Never Rarely, I found myself wishing to see Autumn in such spaces, rather than the liminal, transitory nowhere (train and bus stations, clinic waiting rooms, businesses that require loiterers to make purchases) that comprise her visit to New York City and, with it, the bulk of the film. Ultimately, this longing to see more clearly what sort of person Autumn was helped me understand her world’s limitations: Never Rarely cannot dawdle because, in sync with its structure, it has no time. Hence the film makes abortion into a formal question: the barriers to the procedure strip time and character from Autumn and Skylar, obscuring their selfhood. Hittman’s minimalism mutates from abstracted avoidance into a kind of strength, if not always a consummate method. If I sometimes felt frustrated with the film’s vagueness, I could not refute its depiction of the way social strictures drain women’s lives. Never Rarely Sometimes Always must usher Autumn through a series of impersonal tasks because it cannot be otherwise. Time is not hers to spend.