The story at the heart of the new film Never Rarely Sometimes Always is small and enormous all at once. With a low-key dramatic restraint and workaday simplicity that evokes independent filmmaking of the nineteen-eighties and earlier, writer-director Eliza Hittman depicts the travails experienced by a seventeen-year-old girl (Sidney Flanigan) as she tries to get an abortion. Hindered by the legal obstacles and dearth of safe facilities in her home turf in small-town Pennsylvania, she journey with her similarly aged cousin (Talia Ryder) to New York City, seeking out the safer, more supportive care provided by Planned Parenthood clinics in the metropolis.
The teen’s trip isn’t easy, though not for the anguished indecision that usually factors into fictional depictions of abortion seekers, even those depictions that are staunchly in favor of fair, safe access to the procedure. The protagonist patient has little doubt about her preferred medical course of action. Instead, the film is primarily concerned with all the impediments — social, legal, financial — that complicate matters, from the crisis pregnancy center that deliberately gives her bad information to the daunting prospect of finding places to stay overnight in the big city when carrying little cash and having no access to other resources. All along the way, there are predatory males at the ready to swoop in and take advantage of the young women’s collective reluctance to escalate their woes with protest. Securing a constitutionally protected but broadly condemned procedure is hardly a sole trouble. Base functioning is challenge enough.
The political viewpoint of Hittman’s film is clear, skating right up to the edge of agitprop. The choir is the target of her sermon, which she basically acknowledged when speaking recently to The New York Times. “I don’t think the film is persuasively trying to change anyone’s mind,” the filmmaker said. “It’s just asking you to walk in another person’s shoes.” As a film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always might suffer a bit from clunky storytelling, most from a duty for firm, unsparing accuracy. As Hittman’s intended act of transferred empathy, though, the film is vital.