Never Rarely Sometimes Always: Window Into Autumn’s Journey And American Psyche
By: Hooman Razavi
Every society and culture deals with social issues affecting citizens and institutions operating in that space. In the US, abortion as a long-standing social issue has been prominent and polarized the nation by those who fiercely oppose it and those who see it as an evolving and inalienable right to womanhood. In this backdrop, filmmakers and artists representation of this issue has made the American and arguably world audience, to see this issue from multiple lenses and be familiarized and at the same time de-familiarized with some of the intricacies and misinformation circulating. Eliza Hittman’s award winning new release takes the viewers to see the oddities and struggles through the eyes of film’s main character- Autumn, in the context of rural and urban America.
The title of the film, from the outset, directs the viewers attention to an event that could have multiple pathways, though no other signification provided. From the first opening scene in the school, to the last scene with Autumn (starring Sidney Flanigan in her first feature) in the bus, this social drama engages with our emotions and make us to sympathize with the struggle of the main character and to some extent Skylar (starring Taila Ryder). Character developments are steady and dialogues and visual elements as camera movement and framings support them. The drama and social conflicts are realistic, and it can conjure up the film to be a documentary with some fictionalized elements. The subplots as attraction between Jasper (starring Theodore Pellerin) and Skylar complement the plot arch and the context of the story.
The themes mostly developed are friendship, reproductive rights and individual struggles, family tensions, urban vs. rural treatment and attitude towards abortion and access to wealth and personal health. These themes are all interwoven in the story and the strong acting of Autumn, Skylar and other minor characters help to bring it to the light. The monumental scene which brings all these themes together is when in the abortion clinic in New York, the social worker asks Autumn the hard personal questions. Her skills especially body language, facial expression and tonality of voice help the audience to associate with her ordeal. She is lonely in the frame, but her answers can resonate with all woman impacted or contemplating on the ordeal of domestic violence and abortion.
The film also shows formalistic innovation to support the drama, character development and audience engagement. The most prominent feature is the framing which becomes more enclosed as the film nears its end. One can see Autumn is suffocating and how much emotional weight she must carry. In the same scene discussed above, for almost seven minutes, the still camera, in almost close-up frame narrates a story of fragile teenager betrayed by her alleged lovers. Her face is fixated in the middle of the frame as her life is fixated in this torturous path that she has embarked. The camera movement is also well-considered and active. One can view not only the personal struggles of two major characters but their rural setting and the city of NY. Moreover, the camera is not shy to depicts personal spaces and affected body, in the surgery room, toilet, Autumn’s room and her embattled body. The other aspects are worthy too, from the somber music, low light to almost dark lighting of the scenes and superb acting by all cast that all supported the plot trajectory.
Social Analysis & Implications
The film, third feature by Eliza Hittman, make a social commentary on the state and perception towards abortion in the US. As in her two earlier long features It Felt Like Love and Beach Rat, she meditates on the issue of teen sexuality and its personal impacts and social ramifications. This issue is significant in the US as just in 2017, approximately 195,000 babies were born by teen Moms. These number and associated rates are down since just a decade ago and its trajectory can be seen in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Trends in pregnancy, birth and abortion rates in US (1973-2016)
Eliza Hittman is aware of this statistics and the contentious abortion debates. She made this point clear in interview on this film “I really tried to absorb as much perspective and information as I could but then sort of shape it into a unique fictional story." To access the information correctly, she accesses to Planned Parenthood files and interview the personnel. This aspect is very peculiar because in the analysis one can argue that the focus on the life of Autumn- woman’s perspective is dominant narrative and other social factors are not as significant. However, this personalized focus can not be backed up as firstly the story is so much tied to other themes like family relation, work and friendship bonds and social relations, and secondly, a social and political/social commentator can point to the fact that the director can not be blind to the ever increasing strength of pro-life groups including in the Supreme Court of the US during the Trump presidency.
The representation of abortion in US cinema has a long history. As with other sub-genres of drama in which a contentious issue was being portrayed, one can trace the moralistic storyline during the Hays Code era to more realistic films and characterizations in the decades after 1970s. Interestingly, and as discussed above, since Trump election, this issue has gained more public attention. This focus is mainly due to the fear of Roe v Wade being challenged and the rise in the number of states banning abortion partially at some of its stages.
Interestingly, these political realities have its cinematic reverberations in the film. The trip that Autumn and Skylar make is mainly because in rural Pennsylvania, the abortion support is not as good and available as in the NY state. Hittman portrays this division in mindset and access to care strongly through dialogues and subplots in which the girls have to ask for money to finance the operation and their stay in NY. In this regard, one can also argue that Hittman intends to correct a common misunderstanding about abortion and its danger. As cited by Sisson’s study (2014), whereas 9% of fictional women lose their lives during abortion, as portrayed in American film and TV from 1916 to 2013, realistically, this number is almost close to zero, out of the approximately 640,000 performed in that period.
The other consideration is that Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a product of American independent cinema. This cinema and its personnel as Hittman have eyes on social reality from a critical perspective and can be viewed as anti-establishment directors. One can also point to recent film Saint Frances by Alex Thompson, that shows the complexity of womanhood, motherhood and abortion. These films which are usually made with low-budgets, use actors who are not celebrities yet and portray the issues through complex characterizations need our more focused attention and analysis. The example that comes to mind is the recently made film, Iranian-Canadian production, Pendulum, by Amir Ganjavie. Similar to the theme brought up, though the story is viewed from the perspective of marital challenges associated with abortion in the context of Iranian diaspora in Toronto, but the poignant themes of alienation of woman, her suffering and angst and social stigmas persists. Ganjavie as with Hittman problematizes attitudes towards abortion and how social factors interact and impede reproductive rights of affected mothers. This example, though could be seen as not a solid comparison, highlights the directions that independent filmmakers can take to bring to life the social and individual issues and dilemmas abortion issue stokes.
At the time of covid-19 outbreak, uncertainty in the world and US economy and Trump re-election, domestic issues as abortion can be sidelined. However, American psyche can not ignore this long-standing issue. Eliza Hittman’s film Never Rarely Sometimes Always can resonate with all American audience as it shows the personal struggles, restrictions and realities shaping up the process and impact of abortion. Interestingly, the questions that scene that Autumn reveals her past trauma and what she went through, not never, rarely or sometimes but most likely always resonate with critical audience around the globe who understands the weight of this issue and cinema’s power to represent it.
* Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available on demand beginning April 3.