The description of Eliza Hittman’s follow-up to 2017’s “Beach Rats” is fairly simple: A teenage girl from rural Pennsylvania travels to New York City to get an abortion. The film mirrors its descriptor’s straightforwardness — there is little dialogue, and nearly all of the scenes take place in a fluorescent-lit doctor’s office, on sickly public transportation or the rainy streets of New York City. But in its simplicity is where the film is most captivating, seizing the emotion of the occasion so perfectly you feel the protagonist’s desperation in every footstep.
Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a reserved, unassuming 17-year-old girl who we first see performing a folksy rendition of The Exciters “He’s Got The Power” with silver glitter painted heavily onto her sad eyelids. In the midst of lyrics like “He makes me do things I don’t want to do, he makes me say things I don’t want to say,” Autumn is interrupted by a boy yelling “slut!” Though she falters for a second, she continues, showing us more about our protagonist than if she had said a single word. After a post-concert dinner with her supportive mother and sister and not-so-supportive father, Autumn runs home, and the camera pans down to the growing bump on her abdomen.
When it becomes clear that the parental consent laws of rural Pennsylvania won’t allow for Autumn to get an abortion, she and her cousin/best friend Skylar (Talia Ryder) pocket some money from their pervy grocery-store boss and head to New York City. It quickly becomes apparent that even in a pro-choice city, getting an abortion is incredibly difficult and expensive, and the girls are left in NYC with no money for food or shelter, with men preying on them around every corner.
In a year when abortion rights are under attack, “Never Rarely” captures the crushing isolation and trauma of the process poignantly. Though it is technically an “issue” film, it doesn’t feel like a PSA, though you may feel obliged to donate to Planned Parenthood after watching it.
The most remarkable scene involves the titular phrase being used in Autumn’s pre-procedure interview. The counselor asks a series of questions about Autumn’s relationships and sexual history, requesting that she answer either never, rarely, sometimes, always. Though Autumn obliges at first, the biggest revelations come from the questions she leaves unanswered, demonstrating a brilliance in filmmaking where the most important moments are disclosed in silence.
Between the beautifully comfortable relationship between Autumn and Skylar and the suppressed agony that both girls are experiencing, “Never Rarely” is a film that makes a powerful call to action with very few words at all. It is overwhelming and ravishing, leaning on the talents of two young breakout stars to tell a story that is yearning to be heard.