“He makes me do things I don’t want to do. He makes me say things I don’t want to say,” sings Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a little flat, in the opening scene of Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. It’s part of a high-school talent show – a reliably excruciating event; but the humiliation turns from the general to the specific when a sniggering jock seated near her watching parents (Sharon Van Etten and Ryan Eggold) yells “Slut!”

In other hands, the choice of He’s Got the Power by The Exciters, with its anthemic refrain about sexist coercion in the name of romance, might seem unsubtle. But the matter-of-fact sincerity of Hittman’s unshowy, incrementally devastating film and the naturalism of the two superb central performances drain away the melodrama. Instead, the words take on simple, ironic resonance: so many love songs are ultimately about having no choice.

Hittman’s pro-choice agenda is never in doubt. In steady, sparing takes, unaccompanied by music, that often rest on Flanigan’s face – vivid despite its expressionlessness – the story unfolds with procedural curiosity: Autumn drinking mouthwash and swallowing fistfuls of vitamins in a futile attempt at a home ‘remedy’; Autumn discovering online that, here in Pennsylvania, a minor can only obtain an abortion with parental consent; Autumn enduring the subtle torture of the first mandatory sonogram – the video image of her “beautiful baby”, the “magical sound” of its heartbeat. And later, Autumn, in front of a full-length mirror, punching herself in the stomach, feebly trying to override the hardwired resistance to inflicting pain on herself. Throughout these lonely ordeals Autumn’s decision to terminate her pregnancy is – as far as we can know, given Hittman’s respect for her characters’ interior lives and Autumn’s uncommunicativeness – unwavering.

Eventually she confides in her friend, cousin and supermarket co-worker Skylar (Talia Ryder), who unquestioningly and without fanfare becomes her ally. It is desperately touching how these unsmiling girls interact – never apologising, never thanking, but exchanging so much tenderness as they share a bite of a custard tart, or apply a swoop of lip gloss. Together, they pilfer enough money for two bus tickets to New York City. Once there, though, Autumn is referred by brisk, kindly professionals to yet another clinic, and learns that the procedure involves another overnight. And so, with unexpected expenses and nowhere to stay, what was meant to be a quick, secretive in-and-out turns into a perilous three days mostly spent killing time in the waiting areas and strip-lit bathrooms of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

Autumn and Skylar are wary and withholding, but Hélène Louvart’s intimate, tactful handheld camera coaxes the story from them anyway. Quick, soft, anxious close-ups, of a hand on an arm or a fraught glance, are cut together so sensitively that although the effect of such punch-ins is usually intrusive, here it feels more like a caress, like the palm a sleepy Skylar puts gently against Autumn’s face during a conspiratorial sleepover. With the camera, too, so often on Autumn’s face, as she pierces her nose with a safety-pin or laces her boots or stares emptily out of a bus window, Hittman’s interest in so seemingly unexceptional a protagonist feels calmly radical.

When Autumn finally gets her appointment, she is asked a series of multiple-choice questions: “Your partner makes you have sex when you don’t want to: Never, rarely, sometimes, always?” For the first time with someone else present, she cries – perhaps at some prompted memory, perhaps because a kind adult is finally taking a compassionate interest in her. Or perhaps it’s the test itself, which is encoded with the stories of countless thousands of distraught women.

To everyone else, Autumn and Skylar are just girls. And as girls, they are already heartbreakingly aware of their place in the pecking order, resigned to their bodies being volatile currency, their smiles goods to be bartered in their transactions with the world, with men: the colourless supermarket manager who, in a gross everyday ritual, sloppily kisses their hands when they give in their registers’ take; the leering drunk businessman on the subway who touches himself while looking at them; the college guy they meet on the bus (Théodore Pellerin), who is not a bad guy exactly, yet who still expects at least a make-out session with Skylar in return for his help. During that act of low-level prostitution, in an indefinably devastating detail, Skylar links little fingers with an unseen Autumn: a pinky-swear of support, gratitude and secret-keeping that, like so much here, is all the more powerful for being non-verbal.

Cristian Mungiu’s excoriating expose of the illegal abortion industry in Ceausescu’s Romania, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is a touchstone here. But Hittman’s anger is more general than political, and so cleverly baked into the scrupulously vérité style that you could almost miss the rigour of the screenplay, which makes every interaction between the sexes a potted miniature of patriarchy at work. Even the most casual encounter – when a guy at Skylar’s checkout tries to pick her up, or when Autumn’s ambiguously hostile (step?)father reuses the word “slut” in reference to the family dog – is freighted with commentary on how men see women, how boys see girls, and how girls absorb those ideas and grow quiet and mistrustful in their shadow. It’s with equal respect for Hittman’s skill and dismay at the implication that we realise that not only does the pointedness of these exchanges not interfere with the film’s realism, it is perhaps why the film feels so extraordinarily real.

Hittman’s previous films, It Felt Like Love (2013) and Beach Rats (2017), were both coming-of-age stories. But her third feature is fully mature: like Ryder’s lovely, clouded, wise-before-her-years gaze, it is informed by an almost ancient weariness at the way we treat young women, and the way the resilience and agency of girlhood is so frequently overlooked or downplayed or condescended to.

Never florid, rarely contrived, sometimes painful, always true, Hittman’s film is far more than the abortion story it so single-mindedly follows. It is also a deeply moving prayer of admiration for girls – the wary, watchful ones who have learned to expect nothing of anybody except one another, from whom they expect, and regularly receive, the world.

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Originally published: 10 March 2020