Berlinale 2020 review: Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

Autumn is a 17-year-old girl who finds out she is pregnant and decides to have an abortion. This is the starting point of Eliza Hittman’s unsettling and powerful third feature film, in which what is at stake is never where we want to go, but how to get there. The two sole constants in Autumn’s ordeal are indeed her determination to terminate this unwanted pregnancy (as she is fully entitled to, the choice being hers and only hers to make), and the unshakeable support of her same-age cousin Skylar, who accompanies her all the way. Everything else around the two teenagers can be undermined, refuted, or even treacherous. The most vicious and terrifying treason comes at an early stage of the movie, from the Planned Parenthood section of Autumn’s hometown in rural Pennsylvania. The women who work there are not allies but the first line of enemies, aiming to convince each and every girl to keep their babies, by all means necessary – even lying to them or trying to scare them with blunt videos of anti-abortion propaganda.

Hence what was supposed to bring a solution creates a new dreadful problem on top of the first one – the abortion has to be performed elsewhere, in another state. This triggers the secret odyssey of Autumn and Skylar to New York, where no one knows they are going and where they know no one. They also do not have enough money or information to avoid the pitfalls on their way. Despite some flaws (the not wholly convincing subplot involving a boy from New York; the scene giving the movie its emotional climax and its title, which seems a bit out of tune with the gentle empathy of the rest as it hits so hard), Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a mighty and necessary accomplishment, whose narrative succeeds on both a personal and a political level. We are fully invested in Autumn and Skylar’s endeavor, depicted in a raw fashion to which the firm bond between the two girls and the light touch of Hittman’s gaze offer a tremendous and needed counterweight. Hittman is sharp and articulate in the way she uses this story as a distressing cautionary tale about the frailty of the right to abortion care. As some wage a permanent war against it in the US (and in many other countries around the world), Hittman portrays those who fight for it as a resistance in the literal sense, where donors helping to pay for the procedure and volunteers giving shelter to women coming from far away operate virtually undercover.

There is a third harsh truth that seems like it will never go away from Autumn and Skylar’s lives, or any woman’s: the continuous and grueling struggle they have to go through to be the sole owners of their bodies. Abortion is an important part of this fight, but Hittman also shows us all the ‘invisible’ assaults and harassment women have to endure every single day. These are a part of the journey of the characters as well, from their workplace to every type of public transportation. Their bodies are never undisturbed or private, but constantly overseen and preyed upon. By going through with the abortion Autumn has overcome what is surely one of the hardest trials of her life. However, having witnessed not only this but all the rest as well, we are fully aware of the upsetting reality that her day-to-day life will still be full of unjustified pains and humiliations, just because she is a woman.

Photo copyright: Focus Features