Don’t Pray on Me: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 16, 2020)

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In my 2008 review of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, I wrote:

Mungiu wrote and directed this stark drama, set in the late 1980s, during Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s oppressive regime. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are friends who share a university dorm in Bucharest. From the get-go, we can see that these two aren’t your typically happy-go-lucky coeds. In fact, none of the students on campus seem quick to smile; they vibe a palpable sense of lowered expectations for the future, and that air of innate mistrust that tends to fester in a totalitarian police state.

Gabita is pregnant and wants an abortion. Even though this story is set only 20 years ago, Gabita may as well wished for world peace and a million dollars in a Swiss bank account. In 1966, Ceausescu decreed abortion as a state crime in Romania, making exceptions only for women over the age of 42, and only if they had already mothered a requisite number of children.  He also imposed a steep tax penalty, garnished on the income of any childless woman or man over the age of 25, single or married. […]

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days may not exactly be a romp in the fields, but it is a worthwhile 1 hour, 53 minutes for the thinking person; and depending on your degree of cynicism about our own state of affairs over these past 7 years…it can also be viewed as a cautionary tale.

The journey undertaken by the two young women is harrowing. But that film was set in 1980s Romania, under an oppressive dictatorship. Surely, a young woman in 2020 America who finds herself in Gabita’s predicament wouldn’t face those challenges, right? I mean, come on. “…a cautionary tale”?! Perhaps I was being a tad hyperbolic. Or was I?

[From an April 13, 2020 AP story]

The coronavirus outbreak has fueled attempts to ban abortions in some states, but providers where the procedure remains available report increased demand, often from women distraught over economic stress and health concerns linked to the pandemic.

“The calls we’ve been getting are frantic,” said Julie Burkhart, who manages clinics in Wichita, Kansas, and Oklahoma City. “We’ve seen more women coming sooner than they would have because they’re scared they won’t be able to access the services later.”

Some clinics are seeing patients who traveled hundreds of miles from states such as Texas, which has banned abortions during much of the pandemic on grounds they are nonessential.

Dr. Allison Cowett of Family Planning Associates in Chicago said one recent patient was a teen who drove from Texas with her mother. In Atlanta, Dr. Marissa Lapedis said her clinic accommodated a woman who received her initial abortion consultation in Texas but flew to Georgia when the Texas ban postponed a second visit to receive the abortion pill. […]

Another concern is that abortion bans will force some women into continuing with high-risk pregnancies.

“Without services, very sick babies will be born and families forced to watch them suffer who would, in other times, have made a different decision,” said Dr. Maryl Sackeim, a Chicago-based OB-GYN. […]

Amid debate about whether abortion is an essential service, anti-abortion protesters have mobilized outside numerous clinics — in some cases triggering confrontations with police over whether they’re violating social-distancing rules. In North Carolina, eight of about 50 protesters were arrested April 4 after refusing to disperse outside a clinic in Charlotte.

Even as many businesses close temporarily, anti-abortion pregnancy centers remain open. Virginia-based Care Net, which oversees about 1,100 centers, evoked the pandemic in a fundraising appeal, noting that unplanned pregnancies may rise during isolation and “our centers need to find creative ways to serve these parents and empower them to choose life.”

While it was not her master plan, the timing for the release of writer-director Eliza Hittman’s Sundance hit Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (which premiered this week on V.O.D.) could not have been more apt. Hittman’s indie drama was originally slated for a theatrical opening in March, but was thwarted by its proximity to quarantine closures.

Like the protagonist in 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, 17-year old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a young woman in a quandary over an unwanted pregnancy who has only one real confidant; in this case it is her cousin, BFF and schoolmate Skylar (Talia Ryder).

They both work part-time as grocery clerks in a rural Pennsylvania burg. While Skylar is friendly and engaging, Autumn is sullen and introspective. In fact, our first glimpse of Autumn finds her singing an emo folk-style cover of an early 60s girl group tune at a school talent show (if you pay close attention, the lyrics will take on deeper significance as the film unfolds). Her performance is interrupted by a slut-shaming catcall from a yahoo in the audience. Undaunted, she picks up where she left off and finishes to a smattering of polite applause.

There appears to be a dearth of support at home too; her stepfather (who looks and acts like one of those belligerents who gets wrestled to the ground and handcuffed in any given episode of Cops) has to be brow-beaten by his wife into paying Autumn a compliment for her performance. Although it is never directly addressed, there is also an unsettling tension between Autumn and her stepfather that implies there could be some history of abuse.

Soon after, Autumn visits her local “crisis pregnancy center” to confirm what she suspects. The woman helping her is pleasant enough but obviously not a licensed medical professional. Autumn is handed an over-the-counter test kit and asked to self-administer. She is told that she is likely at 10 weeks. When Autumn fails to sing hallelujah and break into a happy dance, the woman makes a sort of duck face and nonchalantly asks her if she “has a minute” to watch something. Cue one of those horror show-styled Pro-Life videos.

Two things become clear. Firstly, Autumn does not wish to go full term (in a difficult-to-watch scene, she does a Google search on self-induced abortion and attempts a few methods that come to naught). And since she lives in a state where the parent of a minor must consent before an abortion is provided, she needs to quickly brainstorm a much safer way to take care of her situation while keeping it on the down-low from her parents.

Autumn and Skylar scrape together funds (seeded by an impulsive re-appropriation by Skylar while doing her end-of-shift cash drawer balance at the supermarket), surreptitiously pack overnight bags and head for the bus station. Destination: NYC (I half-expected them to sit across the aisle from Joe Buck, to the strains of Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking”).

Along the way, they get chatted up by a gabby oddball named Jasper (Theodore Pellerin, who you may recognize from Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida). Autumn does not engage, but Skylar ends up giving him her cell number (probably just to shut him up) and giving him a politely non-committal answer to his offer to take them clubbing once they hit the city (dweeby Jasper is the only sympathetic male character in the film).

The Midnight Cowboy vibe kicks in again as soon as Autumn and Skylar disembark at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. They are not in Kansas anymore (well, technically rural Pennsylvania). Autumn does find her way to a Planned Parenthood clinic, where she is chagrined to learn that she is in fact in her second trimester (at 18 weeks, instead of 10 weeks as she was led to believe by the woman at her hometown pregnancy crisis center).

She is assured that if she still wishes to follow through with the abortion, they can facilitate. However, due to her status it requires a two-day outpatient procedure for maximum safety. As Autumn and Skylar did not budget for an overnight stay in prohibitively expensive Manhattan, the remainder of the film becomes an episodic ride-along as the pair find various creative ways to kill time between Autumn’s two medical procedures.

Hittman really gets inside the heads of her two main characters; helped immensely by wonderful, naturalistic performances from Flanigan and Ryder. Flanigan especially shines in the film’s pivotal and most emotionally wrenching scene, which takes place at the Planned Parenthood clinic in New York. Autumn is asked a series of questions by one of the staff that are designed to determine the client’s current state of mind, and to find out if she is living in an unsafe situation (e.g., sexual and/or domestic abuse). Autumn is assured there are no right or wrong answers; only “never, rarely, sometimes, or always.”

Interestingly, the character of Autumn reminded me of the eponymous protagonist in writer-director Barbra Loden’s groundbreaking 1970 character study/road movie Wanda (I suspect the film was an influence on Hittman). While Autumn is a 17 year-old high school student and Wanda a 30-something housewife, both characters have a strange, Sphinx-like passivity. Both women live in dreary, conservative working-class towns in rural Pennsylvania. Both are treated like shit by most of the males they encounter, yet are able to remain impervious and even above it all; as if they exist on their own transcendent astral plane. Their inscrutability could be read as a sort of feminist statement…albeit from an odd, counter-intuitive place. Just a thought.

This is not an allegory in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t have to be. It is a straightforward and realistic story of one young woman’s personal journey. The reason it works so well on a personal level is because of its universality; it could easily be any young woman’s story in the here and now.

Hittman has made a film that is quietly observant, compassionate, and non-judgmental. And despite what portions of my review may have led you to think, she does not proselytize one way or the other about the ever-thorny right-to-life debate.

Or does she? Perhaps the film is a Rorschach test; it is your decision to make. As it should be.

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