At the screening I attended of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the scene where the matron at a local Pennsylvania health clinic presented a sonogram to pregnant teenager Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) and then kindly added, “Here’s your beautiful baby,” caused a female critic in the front row to blurt out “Bitch!”
That’s what we’re up against. Even a pro-abortion movie like this one, that indicates a minor character’s pro-life enthusiasm, risks a hostile reaction from an agent of our pro-abortion media (which predictably extols the film). Abortion zealots aren’t satisfied that director-writer Eliza Hittman portrays Autumn as a tormented innocent, unable to think through her situation. Autumn’s susceptibility to progressive culture’s influence, rather than nature, propels the film’s narrative. Hittman inducts Autumn into one side of the women’s-rights industry.
From the first scene, in which Autumn at her high-school talent show performs Ellie Greenwich’s song “He’s Got the Power,” she is presented as a victim of romanticized patriarchy. Rude schoolboys mock Autumn’s singing; plus, her father’s callousness is suspicious, as if suggesting incestuous envy or molester’s guilt. Only Autumn’s dreamy-eyed cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) is sympathetic, displaying girlish truculence learned from working as a grocery-store clerk — crime comes easily to Skylar, who pilfers money from her cashier drawer to finance Autumn’s trip to a New York City abortionist. (What, no Planned Parenthood in Pennsylvania?)
Hittman’s specialty is adolescent sexual naïveté. In 2017’s Beach Rats, she proclaimed that a youth’s confusion as a gay hustler was the fault of his working-class ethnic community’s masculinist pressure. Hittman’s semi-doc sensationalism recalls Larry Clark (Kids, Bully) but without the prurience. Here, Hittman’s empathy — presenting sisterhood as rebellion — is entirely political, as demonstrated in the scene that provides the film’s title.
During Autumn’s overly solicitous welcome at a New York Planned Parenthood interview, an off-screen counselor asks about her sexual history — specifically, her fears about intimidation. Does your partner wear a condom? Has a partner ever forced her into sexual activity? She gets to choose from multiple-choice answers: “Never.” “Rarely.” “Sometimes.” “Always.”
These potential responses lead to confirmation of abuse and powerlessness. No wonder Autumn feels boxed in; she’s being indoctrinated. When the counselor says, “I want to make sure you’re safe,” it is code, assigning victimization.
Even pretty Skylar has to trade time and body to a dork at the Port Authority Bus Terminal to get tickets home. The rest of the movie turns Autumn into Little Nell. She’s seen as persecuted: admitting to first sex at age 14, having six partners in life so far, and having practiced vaginal, oral, and anal sex. And now she’s stranded in the cruel anonymity of New York City.
Victimhood makes Never Rarely Sometimes Always the latest example of politicized filmmaking as the Hollywood norm. Its message overwhelms storytelling craft and reason. That angry screening-room outburst of “Bitch!” showed that politics has taken the place of art appreciation in contemporary film culture.
The current re-release of Camille Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire offers another example of propaganda filmmaking. Everything in Sciamma’s lesbian romance leads to the improbable sequence celebrating abortion as the epitome of feminist solidarity — Sisterhood as Rebellion, Part 2.
Hittman’s film fires a salvo in the abortion wars. Her partisanship goes beyond the kind of realism we saw in Leslie B. Harris’s Just Another Girl on the IRT (1992), in which the pregnancy of a black teen was not a matter of victimhood but the result of her particular, misguided way of life.
Would Hittman prefer that Autumn follow the horrific example of celebrity-actresses Michelle Williams and Busy Philipps, who recently boasted about their Faustian bargains — trading abortion for the material rewards of Hollywood success? Hittman ignores the complexity and courage of choice; this way, film culture’s gatekeepers won’t call her a bitch.