Director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) pushes us into the lives of her characters, only hinting at their backstories. As a result, Never Rarely has the kind of ragged, present-tense urgency we associate with the best of independent cinema.
The situation is tense. Seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) lives in a small Pennsylvania town where she attends school and works check-out at a local market. Too young to obtain an abortion without parental consent in her home state of Pennsylvania, Autumn takes matters into her own hands.
Thanks to a cousin (Talia Ryder) who pilfers some money, Autumn travels by bus to New York City, where she'll be able to pursue her goal without parental approval. Ryder's Skylar accompanies Autumn on her journey.
On the bus ride to New York, the young women meet a guy (Theodore Pellerin) who's interested in hooking up with them. Pellerin's Jasper has his eye on Skylar, the younger of the two girls.
When Autumn arrives in New York, she’s told that she’s 18 months pregnant, not the 10 months that the Pennsylvania clinic Autumn first visited claimed. Why might the first clinic have lied? The longer Autumn waits, the more difficult obtaining an abortion may become. Maybe that's what the religious-leaning Pennsylvania clinic wanted.
The social workers that Autumn meets as she tries to arrange for her abortion are understanding and helpful, but because Autumn is in her 18th month, she must wait an extra day to obtain the procedure. Without money, the girls are forced to play a waiting game, improvising in a city that doesn’t lend itself to killing time without funds.
This portion of the movie suffers from hang-out syndrome. The young women are killing time and, in a way, the movie must do the same.
The wrinkle that pushes Never Rarely beyond another foray into lower-class misery centers on Autumn's attitude. She never questions her decision. She knows that she’s not ready for motherhood and she wants to make sure that whatever chances she has in life aren’t compromised.
As played by Flanigan, Autumn can be distant, off-putting and difficult to read. She’s not asking for sympathy from anyone, including the audience.
And that's the point: The film makes no discernible pro-choice argument, but you can't help thinking that it's telling us that Autumn deserves to make an autonomous choice. Why not? She's already on her own. Her family (briefly seen early on) is incapable of giving her support. She must confront a series of red tape hurdles. The boys we see in Autumn's hometown are crass and cruel.
The title, by the way, derives from multiple-choice questions that a New York City in-take worker asks Autumn about her personal life. As the scene unfolds, we begin to learn more about Autumn. No details. Just simple one-word answers that open a door to Autumn's teenage life.
Autumn answers the questions. Our imaginations do the rest. We get the picture.