Producers: Adele Romanski and Sara Murphy   Director: Eliza Hittman   Screenplay: Eliza Hittman   Cast: Sidney Flanagan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold, Sharon Van Etten, Kim Rios Lin, Drew Selzer and Carolina Espiro   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade:  B+

A Pennsylvania teen takes a bus trip to New York City with her supportive cousin to get an abortion in Eliza Hittman’s uncommonly incisive and realistic drama, a far cry from the Afternoon Special quality it might have been.

Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) is introduced performing at a high school talent show, where her solo of “He’s Got the Power” is rudely interrupted by a boy in the crowd—a commentary on what’s been done to her, and how she’s now being treated.  Though her mother (Sharon Van Etten) is concerned about what might be bothering her, her stepfather (Ryan Eggold) is definitely not, and so she uses Internet information to try a self-abortion before they can find out she’s pregnant.  A visit to a woman’s clinic confirms her fears, and though the women there are sympathetic, they not too subtly demonstrate their aversion to ending the pregnancy; their religious objections are not stridently presented, but one can certainly detect them beneath the surface.

That’s where her cousin Skyler (Talia Ryder) takes over.  Stealing some cash from the day’s receipts at the food store where both of them do checkout, she gets them tickets on the Greyhound to NYC, where parental approval isn’t necessary.  Unfortunately, Autumn proves to be too far along for a single-day procedure, and so the girls are stuck in the city overnight, with no cash for a hotel.  So Skyler takes advantage of a young guy (Théodore Pellerin) who showed an interest in her on the bus to get a loan; the two also go out with him, bowling and patronizing a karaoke place where Autumn sings another song that reflects her condition, “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.”

The title comes from a series of multiple-choice questions posed to Autumn before her procedure by a sensitive but no-nonsense counselor.  Her answers reveal, obliquely, the circumstances that might have led to her pregnancy, and why she is so intent on intent it.

The remarkable thing about “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is that it never descends into melodrama, eschewing bathos in favor of  unvarnished naturalness; the film often has a quasi-documentary feel.  That quality is rooted in Hittman’s spare writing and unforced direction; the film is keenly aware of the kind of relationship that exists between teens like Autumn and Skyler, who vacillate abruptly between peevishness and affection and show a degree of understanding that goes beyond words.

But of course the script has to be brought to life by the actors, and here Hittman has been extraordinarily fortunate.  Flanagan is exceptionally forthright as Autumn, making her sympathetic yet not needy, and capturing her sudden emotional shifts without exaggeration.  Skyler doesn’t require a similar range, but Ryder conveys the intensity of her friendship with her cousin through her actions—especially the brash theft of the market’s money and her willingness to give their young admirer some, but not all, that he wants in order to secure the funds Autumn needs for the operation.   Nor does Pellerin push too hard as the somewhat nerdy fellow. 

The adults have less opportunity to shine, but Van Etten and Eggold are fine as Autumn’s rather obtuse parents, and the women at the clinics, both in Pennsylvania and New York, play (or more accurately, underplay) their scenes so well that they don’t seem like professional actors at all.  The same sort of authenticity is achieved by the creative team. Meredith Lippincott’s production design and Olga Mill’s costumes are unobtrusively on target.  Cinematographer Hélène Louvart captures the authenticity of the surroundings but avoids the jerky, hand-held quality adopted by so many independent films today, opting for a more subdued, classical style, which is abetted by Scott Cummings’ unforced editing. Julia Holter’s music contributes to an atmosphere that is serious but not solemn. 

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is bound to be provocative, but it’s descriptive rather than hectoring, and its direct, honest approach pays rich dividends in dramatic terms.