Sidney Flanigan as ‘Autumn’ and Talia Ryder as ‘Skylar’ in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” screening Thursday at PMA Films. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

When something is described to me as a “political film,” I routinely smile, nod and silently cross the title in question off my mental to-see list. That’s not to say I’m not a politics-minded person. Just ask the many acquaintances who’ve blocked or muted me online. It’s just that moviegoing, to me, has always been more of a sacred thing. Many a fine and worthy cause has made for a deadly dull and dispiritingly prosaic cinematic experience, while, conversely, some of my most rewatched films are gleefully irresponsible.

Which isn’t to say that some of my most cherished movies are, at their heart, deeply committed to conveying something profoundly political. (As an aside, American indie director John Sayles’ films are a master class.) It’s more that those films are films first. When a filmmaker goes into a project message-forward, more often than not, the message becomes the main character – and I have yet to meet a message I want to spend 90 minutes watching.

The most effective way to bring across a point in a fictional film is to ground the story in character. And, with PMA Films’ screening Thursday of writer-director Eliza Hittman’s drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” we get a potent, understated, ultimately persuasive film about abortion. There’s no doubt where Hittman stands in presenting the story of a 17-year-old girl’s fraught and perilous journey to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, just as the film succeeds on its own terms as a compelling character study, not just of main character Autumn (excellent newcomer Sidney Flanigan), but also the fiercely loyal cousin (Talia Ryder, also great, as Skylar) who, sensing her friend’s need, joins in a ride-or-die trip out of state.

I’d call “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” timely, but for the appalling fact that the film was made before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade just a few months ago. Still, for Pennsylvania resident Autumn, parental consent laws and an unstable family situation present innumerable obstacles. Indeed, Hittman unobtrusively portrays the many expensive, humiliating, bureaucratically maddening hoops even women in the film’s pre-SCOTUS decision landscape have to jump through.

A so-called “crisis pregnancy center” that Autumn initially consults is actually just a front for anti-abortion persuasion (and also lies to Autumn about the state of her pregnancy). The trip to New York (which has no parental consent rules in place) is beyond the teen’s financial resources, leading to co-workers Skylar and Autumn pilfering from the till. The true state of her pregnancy, when assessed by the actual women’s health experts at a New York Planned Parenthood, requires both a second night’s stay in the expensive city, and a harrowing night attempting to sleep in the subway, dodging police and random men viewing two exhausted and penniless girls as prey. When a persistent young creep (Théodore Pellerin) hints at a loan in exchange for Skylar’s compliance, Hittman shows a gesture between the two girls of such tenderness and subtle sisterhood that it breaks your heart in half.

Throughout, Flanigan makes Autumn’s determination constantly war with her obvious fear. Determination wins out, with the girl’s doggedness in her already-decided choice to control her future emerging as a mundane but truly heroic quest. With the girls facing down a world seemingly designed to thwart their will and potential at every turn, their understated but iron-clad friendship is irresistibly easy to root for. It’s only when Autumn faces a series of questions from a Planned Parenthood counselor about her home life, sexual history and relationships with boys that Flanigan allows Autumn’s impassive strength to crumble.


The questions are standard, and familiar to any woman, the counselor patiently waiting as Autumn’s eyes dart around the room, with Flanigan captured by Hittman in an unbroken shot. Asked about such everyday, dispiritingly commonplace issues as domestic violence, sexual coercion and sexual violence (the multiple choice answers to which make up the film’s title), Autumn, her voice breaking, can only manage a quiet “Yeah,” to some. To others, she can’t speak at all. The scene contextualizes Autumn and Skylar’s journey with delicate eloquence, even as the implications – for Autumn and untold girls and women like her – land like a punch in the gut.

Look, a movie’s not going to change the world. If it could, such undeniably powerful and wonderful anti-war films like “Come and See,” “Paths of Glory,” “Grand Illusion” or “Grave of the Fireflies” would have us all living in harmony. “Malcolm X,” “Selma” or “Do the Right Thing” would have solved racism, and “Milk” and “Angels in America” would make anti-LGBTQ bigotry not the thing it most definitely and disgustingly remains. But can a movie change a mind?

I like to think so. Movies are powerful things. Seeing the right film at the right time certainly changed me – for the better – at various points in my life. And while I’m surely already on the side of  “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” there’s a power here that, I think, strikes right at the heart of the abortion debate. (Which, if this pinko lefty might opine, is that women are human beings who deserve to make their own decisions concerning their own lives, health and futures. Radical stuff, I know.) Hittman tells Autumn’s story, and that, in Hittman’s skillful writing and direction, is enough.

Autumn is talented (we see her determinedly silencing high school hecklers in the film’s opening musical talent show performance), smart and tough. She’s also moody, sullen and sometimes thoughtless – you know, a teenager. Presented with a situation that threatens her already tenuous shot at escaping the messy domestic situation of her loving but overwhelmed, overburdened mother (complete with creepy and half-formed stepfather), Autumn makes a choice. That the world around her is constructed to belittle, beset and discourage her in a million soul-sapping ways makes her eventual successes that much more admirable.

Abortion as a concept entrenches people. Despite an overwhelming percentage of Americans’ support, the right to choose (go ahead and get angry – I have the facts) laws, overwhelmingly written by men, continue to impose top-down, ideologically driven hardships on women. (While “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is about one girl’s story, the wide and telling disparities of hardship based on race, class and location are sobering stuff.)

A movie like “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” cuts to the heart of the matter by focusing on one ordinary girl, and implicitly asking viewers if they have the right – or the stomach – to look into Autumn’s eyes as she answers those titular questions in that gut-wrenching scene, and tell her she doesn’t have the right to make her own decisions. The entrenched will say she doesn’t, but an intimate, powerful and deeply personal film like this may, at least, force them to avert their eyes while they do. It’s a start, I suppose.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is playing at the Portland Museum of Art’s Bernard Osher Foundation Auditorium at 6 p.m. Thursday. Co-presented with Planned Parenthood of Maine, the film is rated PG-13 and runs an hour and 41 minutes. For more info, go to

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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