Never Rarely Sometimes Always

The characters in Eliza Hittman films are often silent, struggling with experiences that live beyond words. Her first film, It Felt Like Love, explores the confusion of simultaneously desiring and being preyed upon. Beach Rats, set in Brooklyn, follows a young man afraid to admit his sexuality in the hyper-masculine world in which he resides. In Hittman’s latest film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, this silence stands in for the pain and shame often inflicted upon young women seeking reproductive healthcare. Autumn, a seventeen year old girl who sings softly at her school’s talent show and works at the local supermarket, is pregnant. She does not want to be a mother. She is still a child herself. When she visits a local center for women, instead of being given options, she is misled and mistreated. 

Unable to get an abortion in Pennsylvania without her parents’ consent, Autumn and her cousin Skylar head to New York City with the little money they have. While Autumn rarely speaks, to an almost frustrating degree, there is much to see in her eyes. Autumn is afraid. She is afraid of her family finding out. She is afraid to be a mother. She is afraid to venture far from home to have a procedure she’s never had. Most of all, she is afraid to accept the help of strangers. While it is hard to watch Autumn refuse help from well meaning people, her hesitance is understandable. Due to her experience at the clinic in her hometown, which never presented abortion as an option and purposely underestimated how far along she was, well meaning strangers led her astray before she even left for New York. She is a young girl thrust into an adult situation who feels that she has no one.

However specific and beautifully rendered Autumn is, the story Hittman tells is tragically common. Hittman herself labels the film part fiction and part documentary. She went to actual clinics and took tests in order to create an experience for Autumn that rings true to what many young women in America face in an already vulnerable time. Thankfully, Autumn is never stuck in the decision making process. An abortion is what she wants. When the “Christian” clinic she visits does not offer abortion services, Autumn begins to overdose on vitamin C and punch her stomach. With this, Hittman counteracts the narrative that abortion is something all women can be talked out of by the right person. Instead, Autumn is determined to terminate her pregnancy whether the world helps her or not. 

The most prescient scene in the film takes place in a Manhattan Planned Parenthood. At this point, Autumn has been bounced around and denied care at various clinics. Throughout the film, her silence feels that of a traumatized citizen fleeing a warzone. She has that deer-in-headlights look and agrees to almost anything that gets her closer to receiving the care she is seeking. Once she finally finds a clinic that can help her, she is asked a series of questions and must respond with “never, rarely, sometimes, or always.” Already in a fragile state, Autumn breaks down into tears before the questionnaire is over. In a moment when she is already out of money, far from home, and worried she will be forced into motherhood, a stranger is now asking her to define any sexual trauma in her past. The questions are hard to answer for someone like Autumn, who Hittman infers has been forced into sexual encounters and mistreated by past partners. We never know the exact story of her pregnancy and can only make guesses based on her reactions to the questions. These questions are hard to answer at this moment, but are also hard to answer, period. 

As a nation, we are still trying to come up with sufficient language for the wide range of experiences that constitute harassment and rape. How do we expect a young girl to name her trauma when our culture can barely admit the trauma exists? At what point does “rarely” become “sometimes”? What is the distance between “sometimes” and “always”? While the clinician asking the questions never forces Autumn to answer and is very kind, asking every woman to recount past trauma in order to receive healthcare is a new form of trauma in and of itself. Even as I understand the questions are asked in order to give women a safe space to come forward about being abused, what could have been a simple procedure ends up being a horrific four day experience. Hittman brilliantly combines character study and realism to create a film that speaks to the levels of shame women endure for simply being born. There is shame around teenage pregnancy. There is shame around abortion. There is shame about being a victim of abuse. Even as we learn how common these experiences are, girls like Autumn are led to believe they are utterly alone. 

Touch is the most powerful aspect of Hittman’s work. Within this film, she shows both how touch can be destructive and healing. It is clear that when men touch women in this film it is violent. Autumn’s boss kisses her hand each day when she turns in the money from the register. A young man taps Skylar on the shoulder during a bus ride. However, there are women holding Autumn’s hands throughout. Autumn squeezes a nurse’s hand through the pain. Skylar and Autumn link pinkies in a moment of vulnerability. Each time a touch happens, for better or for worse, Hittman is there to show us that even the most benign of gestures can leave a young girl uncomfortable and confused. 

Musician Sharon Van Etten plays Autumn’s mother and her powerful song “Seventeen” is used in the trailer for the film. While a love letter to her youthful days in New York City, Van Etten’s song feels at home in the trailer, playing while Autumn journeys to New York. 

Down beneath the ashes and the stone

Sure of what I’ve lived and have known

I see you so uncomfortably alone

I wish I could show you how much you’ve grown

You’re just seventeen 

Seventeen 

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