I have seen movies where I am happy about what happens, but the movie itself is a bad movie. Either the acting is bad, or the story is simplistic, or—my least favorite—the emotion is sentimentalized. On the other side are the movies that are technically excellent but I hate everything that is happening. (There are, of course, bad movies where I hate everything that happens, but that’s a separate issue.) Part of the problem with the first kind of movie is that it is often driven obviously by an agenda or aimed at communicating a certain message more than telling a compelling story.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020; HBO Max or for purchase on Amazon Prime) is the second kind of movie. I hesitated to start it because I expect a certain cast to movies made about abortion. There are so few films about people choosing (or not choosing) abortion that are well-made and that are not trying to get across a very specific message. Far more often, the stories are simplified and simplistic, aimed at reinforcing the opinions of those who are likely to see those movies. I don’t need another propaganda piece, even if it is saying something with which I agree. NRSA is on my list of the best movies of 2020, though it gives me no reason to be optimistic about this world.
I am certainly and definitely on the side of those who view abortion as a fundamental human injustice, and the legalization of abortion as an almost-50-year travesty. It is incomparable in its cruelty toward the most helpless human beings, and I cannot for the life of me understand how those who advocate, for example, for compassion and help for children separated at the border (a separation to which I am opposed, no matter who is at fault) can, in the next breath, advocate for donations to Planned Parenthood (the entirety of whose non-abortion work is done elsewhere and easily accessible). Family separation is bad; the destruction of more than 850,000 human lives per year is incommensurately worse.
The question is whether a movie dealing with abortion can deliver a compelling story that is not made worse by its ideological cast. NRSA essentially succeeds at that, though from certain comments about crisis pregnancy centers, I can guess which side the writer/director, Eliza Hittman, is on. The scene where Autumn (the excellent Sidney Flanagan, in her first film) is asked whether she is “abortion-minded” and then immediately shown an anti-abortion film is cringey (though I don’t think it accurately represents all crisis pregnancy centers), and we who want to support both mothers and children ought to be aware of how things like that might come across.
NRSA is a well-told and fully realized story about a girl trying to make her way with little to no guidance. In other words, though it deals with what, to me, is a human tragedy, it is as far from this as possible. Besides the obvious theme of the difficulties some women face in obtaining abortions, the deeper and more tragic reality is Autumn’s entire environment, which seems more and more like the reality of much of our world.
While she is performing at a school talent show, a guy in the audience yells “slut” and forces Autumn to restart her song. At the restaurant afterwards, her stepfather (Ryan Eggold) refuses to tell her she did a good job, instead saying “your mother wants me to tell you did a good job.” Then a different guy gives her a knowing look and a possibly lewd gesture, to which she responds by throwing water in his face as she leaves. At the grocery store where she and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) work, their boss kisses their hands when they turn in the money from their tills.
There is not a single positive male presence in their lives (or in the movie). Her stepfather may be the worst, completely uninterested in the lives of his wife’s children—God knows where Autumn’s father is—and more affectionate with the dog than with Autumn. It all reflects a general culture of fatherlessness, in terms of an inability or unwillingness to provide good models for boys as they mature (or, more often, as they don’t). While I grieve the “procedure” at the center of the film, I grieve as well that we have created the anti-culture in which women and girls like Autumn feel like the conception of a human child is a problem to be dealt with, rather than a gift. Other than pregnancy, there is no natural, bodily, physical process that we treat as a disease to be dealt with by drugs or surgery.
Some people are going to see in NRSA a tragedy because a 17-year-old girl can’t get an abortion in Pennsylvania without parental knowledge or permission. They are, as abortion advocates always do, going to use it as an illustration of how there ought to be no restrictions on abortion of any kind, at any time. They might see the light on Autumn’s face, as she closes her eyes on the bus out of New York City, as peace and rest as she proceeds into the hopeful future of the rest of her life. To my eyes, though, the light is sallow and sick: the light of a tragedy that is not going to end just because Autumn ended her pregnancy.