An abortion odyssey on film...
Updated: Mar 6, 2020
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a quiet film. Whispers from critics in the seats behind me ricocheted like pistol shots in a nearly silent cinema, as 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) visits a medical centre in her small town in Pennsylvania. She is pregnant and wants an abortion, but the moment she hints at this, the volunteer medical practitioner, an older lady, pops on a VHS. 'HARD TRUTHS' announces the VHS title as anti-abortion propaganda masquerading as wisdom is presented to Autumn.
“These little centres are highly controversial and problematic in the United States,” writer/director Eliza Hittman tells me. “They're federally funded but there's no licensed doctor on site. It's run by volunteers who don't offer medical services. They just redirect you to adoption centres and try to offer you hand-me-downs and diapers. There's tragically one in every town in America.” Hittman weaponises the shock-value of seeing a vulnerable teenager being spoon fed an ideological position in place of sound science, and it's easy to imagine a more conflicted soul being coerced into doing something they don't want to do in this position. However this isn't the story here.
NRSA follows the journey that Autumn takes with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to have an abortion in NYC. They take a Greyhound bus to Port Authority where they eke out limited money over two homeless nights as Autumn goes through a two-day procedure at a clinic. The rapport between the two actresses carries the sometimes bruising familiarity of people who love each unconditionally. Their relationship is the sweet spot at the core of an otherwise wary and street-smart film. Flanigan, a relative newcomer, performs her part with bristling determination. She only speaks when she has something to say, and is otherwise content to sit lost in thought. When loaded moments arise, she always steer her destiny with conviction. This certainty in one so young is the rock on which the whole narrative is mounted. By removing the question of whether Autumn will get an abortion, the focus turns to the how; begging questions regarding the procedural steps needed to terminate a pregnancy at the age of seventeen when you're from a small, rural, town awash with with pro-life sentiment.
In order to portray her drama with a docu realistic level of detail, Hittman walked more than a mile in her lead character's shoes. She visited a little center to take a pregnancy test, she took the Greyhound bus from Pennsylvania to Port Authority and she had meetings with Planned Parenthood and similar non-affiliated clinics, even having someone connected with the organisation read over the script to check for accuracy. “It's a fun way to work,” said Hittman, “It's active. Writing on a computer is kind of stagnant. It's interesting to be out in the world and having an experience, rather than suffering at a computer.”
Worldly experience forms the powerful root of the story, for Hittman began research on this film after reading about the preventable death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. Halappanavar, an Indian woman living in Ireland, died aged 31 in Galway, after being denied an abortion. Aware that she was miscarrying, she requested an abortion several times, but was repeatedly refused as a fetal heartbeat was still present, making it illegal under the Catholic Church-influenced Irish law of the time to carry out the procedure. Halappanavar died from septicaemia, and in the wake of her death the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 was passed.
After reading about her death, Hittman went out and bought a book called Ireland's Hidden Diaspora about the journeys that Irishwomen would take to London. “I started to think, 'What would the American equivalent be of that journey?”
Never Rarely Sometimes Always premiered at Sundance Film Festival then played in competition at Berlin Film Festival. Follow @actorstemple for updates on UK screenings.