Never Rarely Sometimes Always (5 stars)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

This award-winning abortion drama from Eliza Hittman takes an empathetic, well-informed approach to a taboo topic

How we care for our young women is under the spotlight in this empathetic examination of the search for an abortion in obstructive circumstances. An award-winner at both Berlin and Sundance 2020, the remarkably astute Never Rarely Sometimes Always eschews the hedonistic or irreverent tack of many teen dramas. Writer-director Eliza Hittman follows her acclaimed sophomore feature Beach Rats with a solemn, sensitive picture of a pivotal journey from small-town Pennsylvania to New York City.

For 17-year-old Autumn (astonishing newcomer Sidney Flanigan), the weight of worry hangs heavy during days which should be relatively carefree. When her suspected pregnancy is confirmed by a test at a local women's centre, the conservative facility shrinks her options to raising the child or adoption, and plays her crude anti-abortion propaganda. Undeterred, and accompanied by her sympathetic cousin Skylar (the nearly as new on the scene and equivalently excellent Talia Ryder), Autumn makes the bus trip to New York City to undergo a termination.

Hittman was inspired by the heart-breaking true story of the India-born, Ireland-based Savita Halappanavar – whose 2012 death after she was denied an abortion sparked international outrage – and by the unexplored territory of Cristian Mungiu's landmark Romanian drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. She cleverly connects the dots between a US government increasingly inclined to take ownership of women's bodies and the relentless sexual harassment the teens are subjected to by sleazy, entitled men; the women are often powerless, and a certain kind of person feeds off that. The cinematography from Hélène Louvart (Rocks, Happy as Lazzaro) has a tender, caressing quality as it draws out the detail in Autumn and Skylar's every reaction and sidles up to them in their sorrow.

As interested in the termination process as Autumn's personal predicament, Hittman carefully depicts the contrast between a women's clinic where abortion is a dirty word and a Planned Parenthood facility where judgement is reserved. In the latter, Autumn's wider circumstances are delicately probed by counsellor Kelly Chapman, a real-life women's health expert who Hittman encountered during her research. Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes its title from the multiple-choice options Chapman gives Autumn during a questionnaire – a terrific scene where Flanigan nails Autumn's emotional discomfort and reluctance to respond.

The solidarity between the two cousins is hugely touching, albeit simultaneously terrifying, as Skylar exposes herself to great risk. It's a film that radiates concern for its vulnerable young characters, for whom peer support is an inadequate substitute for parental protection and a society which should more comprehensively have their backs.

Available digitally from Wed 13 May and on VOD from Wed 27 May.