NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS: Kindness Within Systems of Cruelty

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always is currently streaming on HBO Go and HBO Max.

The following spoils major plot points of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, so please watch the film first before reading. That being said, this is a film that’s about the experience so that’s not necessarily required for this.

The American healthcare system is a labyrinth designed to suckle every last dollar out of the teat of desperately sick people in a country where disease and illness are treated like moral failings. Even more so when the country has been run for generations by theocrats and obsessive evangelicals eager to destroy as many lives as they can in the wake of the version of a religion dedicated to gleeful sadism.

And so the question emerges, as the rest of the world watches American evangelists with growing horror: what is there to be done for a single woman trying to take control and autonomy over her own body? A sudden and abrupt pregnancy while she’s still in high school forces her from rural Pennsylvania to the big city of New York, the nearest place where she can safely and legally terminate a pregnancy without alerting her fundamentalist parents. The only person in her corner is her first cousin and fellow coworker at a supermarket, called Skyler, with the two risking life and limb for what is a fundamental human right in many other countries.

What is there to be done for a single woman trying to take control and autonomy over her own body? It’s not like Autumn would have an answer to that fundamental question, and I sure as hell don’t either. But she’s forced into survival mode, even as the nature of her pregnancy is only hinted at, never fully revealed, because the reasoning isn’t the point and writer/director Eliza Hittman thoroughly understands this. It doesn’t matter if it was consensual or not, with proper protection or not. Every person with a uterus has the right to their own body, and the intentional vagueness to Autumn that is only pulled away at the most devastating moment is entirely the point. A lot of films treat abortion as a thing that can only be done in very specific cases rather than the choice of every person with a uterus.

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The other choice that Hittman and company makes that really works to this film’s advantage, and causes it to really click into place at around the halfway point, is to change the focus away from the supposed controversy of abortion as a concept. The film isn’t afraid of the word, nor does it play coy. It treats the termination of a pregnancy as casually and as empathetically as every person who goes through it deserves. But it renders more time to the focus on empathy within systems designed for cruelty, and showing how easily we all would break with the same stressors without the very few in our corners. Autumn has nothing other than her cousin Skyler, who moves literal mountains in order to get her the care she needs, and the few people within the cruel healthcare system who recognize how lost and devastated she is. The pregnancy itself isn’t the greatest stressor, it’s only the final straw on top of a lifetime of cruelties. Autumn never once hesitates about her choice.

The film’s most talked about scene is its best, where the strange and abstract title suddenly clicks into place, a single medium close-up of the phenomenal Sidney Flanigan where she is given a required interview which reveals her entire character in one fell swoop. Hittman understands perfectly how to take a very simple story (it is very much a road trip story if it wasn’t filmed like a visual tone poem) and make that simplicity be absolutely resonant when it needs to be. The biggest gut punch of them all is that it’s not even a scene where the character opposite her means her any harm; instead, it’s a person legally obligated to ask her such personal and intrusive questions before she can get the care she needs.

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A lot of the repeated motifs hint to the margins with which the two of them are constantly forced into: they’re not allowed their paychecks unless their much older supervisor is allowed to make out with the backs of their hands, and much more explicit depictions of men understanding their power over them besides. The film understands these men know full well what they’re doing and do it to feel the only sense of power they feel under a feeling of lacking control. Projection becomes abuse becomes terror becomes an entire system designed to destroy the lives of anyone with a uterus, control spanning outward in ripples. The difficulty Autumn faces in the quest to control her own body, from a fake pregnancy scam center to the usual throngs of fanatics outside the genuine clinic, to the oppressive rush of overstimulating noise and light surrounding her first trip to a big city, all of it closes in like a tidal wave, with Autumn barely able to contain her rage at every moment. Such a thing, if approached with a less delicate touch, could have been the most deeply insensitive thing. And yet it’s not, and Hittman and Flanigan and Talia Ryder more than knocking it out of the park with very few words as Skyler make it something more.

That Barry Jenkins of Moonlight fame features as the film’s executive producer feels like no accident to why it feels so much like a visual tone poem at time. It contrasts the almost late-60s/early-70s grit and grime of the proceedings with an ethereal and haunting score that makes this journey feel like a spiral deep into the ugly subconscious of the American psyche. And yet, around all that ugliness and oppression lies the film’s empathy, a connective tissue it finds in small acts of kindness that fall like dominoes outwards and giving both cousins the internal strength they need to complete their journey. Their own family can’t be trusted, given how much Autumn’s family clearly despises one another, and every man they encounter feels like an intrusion into the natural world of the film. The film’s greatest and most intentional irony is in it making the scenes in the clinic the only time that anyone dares be compassionate to Autumn other than Skyler. It has a sparse script with little dialogue but a whole other script seemingly composed of looks and glances and brief micro-expressions, visual shorthand, almost like it’s teaching the audience it’s own quietly transgressive language we often don’t see visually portrayed. It brings to mind Celine Sciamma’s masterful Portrait of a Lady on Fire in a lot of ways, that language of glances, skating underneath the margins so that those who mean them harm cannot see them in their most intimate and vulnerable moments with one another.

I don’t think any moment in the film hit harder than the first of two procedures to terminate the pregnancy, after a devastating consultation that hints at the true nature of what brought them to this moment. Autumn has spent the entire film mostly closed off and not saying very much, and a single lateral tracking shot reveals her holding the hand of a total stranger, the counselor who interviewed her. Later in the film, during the second procedure, as Autumn is put to sleep, that same woman is shown gently stroking her hair and face, comforting her through her anxiety as she slowly relaxes. The two barely know each other and yet this shared intimacy is so sudden and abrupt that it completely shatters you. It’s the first time in the film that someone other than Skyler has touched Autumn in a film full of unwanted touch and it is completely needed. And this is connected through the stakes Skyler goes to in order to make sure everything goes as planned, and in her own climatic and horrifying moment, it’s Autumn in turn who reaches out and holds her hand, the strength to go on passed between people who would be truly lost without one another. It is love conveyed without a single word, and therein lies the true rub, to be seen as a fully autonomous person deserving of love and care and control over one’s body and mind, completely, without reservation.

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