WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW FOR NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS AND PREMATURE
Pregnancy stories in pop culture are, dare I say, common. I am not saying this as an insult, but as an observation. You see them in sitcoms when a storyline needs livening up; remember the big cliffhanger on Friends with the pregnancy test found at Monica and Chandler’s wedding? Whether Monica, Rachel, or Phoebe was pregnant was a major question. A lot of shows aimed at teenagers or young adult viewers, like Jane the Virgin, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Glee, and Dawson’s Creek, either explicitly use pregnancy as a jumping-off point for the series or incorporate it as a twist. Gilmore Girls did this in the worst way possible; I will never forgive the ending for the decade-later final season. Most recently—just this past weekend!—Issa Rae’s fourth season of Insecure used pregnancy to signify its characters really, finally growing up, settling into their 30s with children on the way. It was a good season, I think! You should watch it!
And in movies, well, this is everywhere: the idea that having a child is either exceptionally fulfilling for a female character, or galvanizing and maturing for a male character. Have a baby, get your shit together, grow up, be a better person. Judd Apatow loves this trope; that’s why we have Knocked Up, and about half of Apatow’s subsequent movies. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler flirted with this in their first film together, Baby Mama. Before John Krasinski was out here stanning for the CIA, his Away We Go, co-starring Maya Rudolph, was quite charming. Endings, Beginnings, with Shailene Woodley, Sebastian Stan, and Jamie Dornan was an awful adaptation of this concept; the Mamma Mia! movies lovely ones.
But the reality is that not every woman who gets pregnant decides to have a child. As we know from decades of research by the Guttmacher Institute, in particular a study released in 2017, 25 percent of women have an abortion by the age of 45. Abortion rates are on the decline overall among all demographic groups, dropping 25 percent on average between 2008 and 2014, and data show this is partially because of improvements in contraceptive use. (A 2019 study updated that decline rate, showing a drop of 19 percent from 2011 to 2017.) Back to that 2017 study, “By age 20, 4.6% of women will have had an abortion, and 19% will have done so by age 30.” Where are these narratives in pop culture? Comparatively, there aren’t that many! And if movies typically paint carrying a fetus to term as the responsible choice, then what is that same characterization implying about the 25 percent of women who don’t?
Thankfully, as a counter to that subliminal messaging in which female worth is intrinsically tied to your womb, this past year has seen the release of three different films about women who choose to exercise their legal right to an abortion: Saint Frances, which I consider one of the year’s best films; Never Rarely Sometimes Always, one of the most buzzed-about films to come out of this year’s abbreviated festival circuit; and Premature, a little-seen IFC Films release. In this piece in particular, I’m going to focus on Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Premature (because I’ve written about Saint Frances before, but I recommend it in the highest possible terms!), and how they follow the varying experiences of two young women, both high school students and part of that aforementioned 4.6 percent, who choose to abort their pregnancies. What the movies show us about the vastly different capabilities, byzantine laws, and faith-based hypocrisy of this country’s health care system is staggering, and the performances that each of these films use to guide us through these labyrinths are undeniably precious.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is one of those movies with a wide gap in critical and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes (99% Tomatometer; 67% Audience Score), and because I hate myself, I decided to peruse some of the negative audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. This one might be my favorite:
There was no point to this movie. Literally I just watch a girl try and go get an abortion, And none of the uniting problems got solved. Such a rip off.
I’m really not trying to be an asshole here by mocking some random person’s opinion on the Internet, but if I may hazard a guess, this feels like the common complaint people have about Never Rarely Sometimes Always: that nothing happens. And what a fundamental misread of the film that is. Eliza Hittman’s film moves not slowly, but intentionally, each scene sharing with us a secret regarding protagonist Autumn (Sidney Flanigan). The opening scene is at her high school talent show, where the 17-year-old strums her guitar and performs a cover of “He’s Got the Power” by R&B group The Exciters. She pours her heart out to an audience who heckles her; when she admits “He makes me do things I don’t want to do … Although I try to break away, I can’t stop/He’s got the power/The power of love over me,” someone interrupts her by yelling “Slut!” Her father (or maybe it’s her stepfather, or her mother’s boyfriend; it’s not quite clear) makes sexually suggestive comments toward her all the time; it’s heavily implied he might be abusing her. The boys at school mock her, the kind of mocking that comes from whispered stories and vicious rumors.
Suspecting that she’s pregnant, Autumn visits the only women’s health clinic in her small town. It’s only after her pregnancy is confirmed that she realizes that she’s been tricked. She cannot get an abortion here. The place is actually an anti-choice facility, the kind of “crisis pregnancy center” that has basically put women’s health care around the country in a stranglehold. As reported in Women’s Health magazine in 2018,
According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, a non-profit organization that opposes restrictions to abortion access, 4,000 crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) currently operate throughout the United States. In some states, such as Minnesota, CPCs outnumber abortion providers by as many as 15-to-1.
And while some are legally permitted to provide pregnancy testing, sonograms, and other services, others have no actual medical licensing. As a result, they can often provide women with deceptive information that puts women’s reproductive rights and health in serious jeopardy.
In Pennsylvania in particular, Autumn’s home state, the Women’s Law Project reported in 2017:
“… crisis pregnancy centers receive millions of taxpayer dollars every year. Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that diverts Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds—safety-net funds for low-income families in need—to fund crisis pregnancy centers.”
And yes, those crisis pregnancy centers are spreading to other states, with various misuse of funds, too. Also reported by the Women’s Law Project, in 2019:
In May, a group called Equity Forward launched “Real Waste,” which it described as “a website and ad campaign calling attention to the misuse of taxpayer money by Real Alternatives (RA), a Pennsylvania-based state contractor that operates anti-abortion programs in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana.”
Pennsylvania is one of only a handful of states that diverts TANF funds—that is, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—into Real Alternatives, including directly into the CEO’s significant salary. Real Alternatives admitted that it has used Pennsylvania taxpayer money to seed operations in other states after suing in response to being audited.
We see the bait and switch typical to these anti-choice centers firsthand with Autumn. The center employee hands her a store-bought pregnancy test rather than offering any medical guidance; before Autumn leaves, the employee bombards her with brochures about adoption and a pamphlet on “The rights and responsibilities of the father”; and when Autumn returns for a sonogram, there’s no discussion of her choice to abort. “This is your beautiful baby,” the center staff say. “This is the most magical sound you will ever hear.” Autumn is utterly nonplussed by the heartbeat—not soothed, not comforted—and yet the employee won’t let up. “I’m sure once you have that beautiful baby in your arms, you’ll forget you had these doubts. I know these things, I’m a mother,” the woman says, and then she shows Autumn a grainy old video about the evils of abortion titled “HARD TRUTH.”
If the woman thinks any of this is going to work, she’s wrong, because she doesn’t know Autumn. The high schooler is desperately trying to remain a normal teenage girl, but what is sobering here is how many of those “normal” experiences center around toxic masculinity, sexual harassment, and a quid pro quo relationship between young women and young men. At her grocery store job, customers hit on her; a faceless coworker we never see kisses both Autumn and her cousin and coworker Skylar (Talia Ryder) against their will. At home, after learning that in Pennsylvania she needs the consent of a parent before receiving an abortion (thanks to the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act, named as if women are just running wild, getting abortions every day), Autumn tries the procedure herself. She takes pills. She beats her stomach. She punches herself all over. She cries. In an earlier scene, the cousins had commiserated over period cramps, pushy men, and pregnancy scares, with Autumn asking, “Don’t you ever just wish you were a dude?” and Skylar replying, “All the time.” All these interactions, and the girls’ dearth of options and resources, show us why.
Hittman keeps these frames tight, crowding us into the grocery store breakroom with Autumn and Skylar and in her bedroom and bathroom with Autumn, making her pain and concern and worry ours. And that continues when Autumn and Skylar decide to, with a pouch of stolen money, travel from their sleepy, abandoned, one-time industrial town in Pennsylvania to New York City, where Autumn can actually secure an abortion. The woman from the anti-choice center leaves Autumn a voicemail, claiming “I’d love to see you more and talk”; Autumn ignores the message. But even in New York City, that misinformation continues to shape Autumn and Skylar’s journey. The first Planned Parenthood they go to in Brooklyn, where Autumn’s suitcase is searched for weapons or bombs before they’re allowed to enter, can’t perform the procedure because the anti-choice center lied about how far along in her pregnancy Autumn was. The procedure now needs to be performed in Manhattan, will take longer than Autumn anticipated, and will cost more money than the teens brought with them. And even in NYC, Autumn and Skylar can’t escape the reality that men are bad, and that there’s a transactional quality to so many interactions between women and men. A man on the subway begins to masturbate when the teens make eye contact with him. A young man a few years older than them takes a liking to Skylar, and offers to pay for their bus fare, their meals, and maybe more if Skylar will just spend a little one-on-one time with him. No image has haunted me more this year than this character leading Skylar off into the bowels of a train station, Skylar turning around to stare back at Autumn, and Autumn secretly following them and discreetly holding Skylar’s hand while the boy pushes Skylar up against a pillar and kisses her.
How united the cousins are in the face of such unrelenting exploitation is harrowing, but also upsetting are the answers Autumn provides about her sexual and relationship history to the Planned Parenthood staff at the location where she will receive the abortion. These employees are nothing like the Pennsylvania anti-choice-center employee who tried to force Autumn into a different choice, one that aligned with that woman’s ideology; they actually consult with Autumn, give her advice, and counsel her on her decision. And the information they collect from Autumn helps us understand her further as a person, making her more than just a figure defined only by this pro-choice vs. anti-choice argument. “Can you tell me what led to your decision to terminate the pregnancy? … Whatever your decision, it’s totally fine, as long as it’s yours,” they tell her, asserting her role in this process.
The questions they ask her that require “never, rarely, sometimes, always” answers provide us with more details about Autumn’s life, and although they’re painful—revealing that she’s been physically abused, and forced to have sex against her will—the counselor asserts that she’s asking because she cares. “I want to make sure that you’re safe,” she reaffirms, and we stay on Autumn’s face the whole time during the questioning. Flanigan captures so much in these moments, Autumn’s discomfort and sadness and pain, and eventually the reassurance and trust she grows to feel. The next day, she is strong enough in her decision to give voice to it—“I’m having an abortion,” she answers the center staff before being anesthetized—and on the bus back to Pennsylvania, Skylar still by her side, Autumn can finally relax. She closes her eyes and goes to sleep—not necessarily at peace, because she is still returning to an oppressively small town, unwelcoming peers, and a possibly abusive father figure. But, for a few brief moments, at rest.
The Odyssean nature of Autumn’s quest brings to mind Nia DaCosta’s excellent, similarly themed Little Woods, and shines a light on how many of the women in this country are denied access to health care to which they are legally entitled. Remember how there was a year-long legal struggle over Missouri’s last abortion clinic because the state health department wanted to revoke Planned Parenthood’s license? The state motion was finally denied earlier this spring and Planned Parenthood will hold the license through 2021, but if you don’t think the state will find a way to try again, maybe you don’t fully grasp how bleak shit has gotten in terms of Republicans doing everything in their power to overturn Roe v. Wade.
In contrast to what we see Autumn go through in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, filmmaker Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Premature takes a different angle: What is the emotional impact of an abortion on the woman choosing to undergo the procedure? What happens next? We’ve seen this moment within a romantic-comedy frame (think of Jenny Slate and beau Jake Lacey watching Gone with the Wind together after her abortion in Obvious Child), and we’ve certainly seen female characters decide against abortions before (think of Michelle Williams’s character in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine). But Green takes an approach that is different from either of those movies, focusing instead on the immediate aftermath and reasserting the humanity of the woman at the center of this story.
At first, Premature unfolds like an idyllic, sundrenched dream. High school graduate and aspiring poet Ayanna (Zora Howard), 17 years old, is counting down the days before she leaves Harlem for Bucknell University. Days are spent with her three best friends, the four of them traveling all around the city, flirting with guys, watching neighborhood basketball games, attending family cookouts. Ayanna’s nights, though, are soon occupied by handsome music producer Isaiah (Joshua Boone), who moved years ago to New York City from Raleigh, North Carolina, for college. After running into him twice and lightly rebuffing his first advances (“I didn’t get your name,” he asks; “I didn’t give it to you,” she replies with a laugh), Ayanna eventually admits her attraction, and the result is that heady tumble into young love. The conversations are easy: her poetry, his music, Star Wars, her plans for Bucknell, why he dropped out of school. By the waterfront, with the sky a voluptuous pink, they kiss; later, when Ayanna tries to rush their first time together, Isaiah slows things down. He performs oral sex, willingly and often; “You shining, ho, shining like new money!” her friends say as praise. Ayanna’s poetry becomes inspired by their relationship: “What is this moving inside me? It blooms, aches./The absence of you is heavy as the weight. … What did I know of my heart before you gave it shape?”
It all seems lovely and perfect, until suddenly it’s not. During a double-date card game with some of their friends in Isaiah’s apartment, apropos of nothing, a young white woman walks in. She had a key. “Isaiah, I need to talk to you,” she says, and with that entry and that one line of dialogue, Ayanna’s world shatters. Howard’s performance, guided by the script she co-wrote with Green, goes through a whole range of emotions after this revelation. She obsessively checks Isaiah’s social media feeds, desperate to find out more about this girl. At a party, clad in an uncharacteristic dress and throwing back shots, she grinds herself against another guy. When having sex with Isaiah later, the joy and euphoria we had seen on their faces before is replaced here with unease and blankness. “Men are such assholes,” one of her friends says, and with practically no information provided by Isaiah about that other woman—was he cheating on her with Ayanna, or on Ayanna with her?—Ayanna tends to agree.
But then she realizes she’s pregnant, and Ayanna considers passing on Bucknell. “What if I stayed?” she asks Isaiah, as an offer for reconciliation, while his “Yeah, it could be good,” is a determined brushoff. Their eventual breakup, with Ayanna desperately asking him “Did I do something?” says so much about how we condition teenage girls to always think they’re in the wrong (see also: Betty). And with the belief that their relationship is fully over, and with Bucknell on her mind, and with her fear that she would end up like her mother, Ayanna visits an abortion clinic in New York City. Getting an appointment, and the prescription for the two-pill medical abortion, is straightforward, nothing like what we see Pennsylvania resident Autumn struggle with in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. What happens to Ayanna afterward is hard. Green is unflinching in showing it all: Ayanna’s serious pain, her excessive bleeding, the blood swirling down the drain. Her mother’s anguish at her daughter’s ordeal. And, finally, Isaiah’s anger, and Ayanna’s sorrow about what happened between them. “It was my choice,” she says to Isaiah’s frustration that she didn’t tell him about the pregnancy. “It was our choice,” he replies, but Ayanna has the last word: “It’s my body!” The fight is messy, and heated, and when Isaiah shoves Ayanna out the door of his apartment building and locks it so she can’t get in, it’s a definitive end.
But should the end of this relationship be the end of Ayanna? That’s not how life should work. Ayanna’s potential shouldn’t be constrained by this man—one who is some years older than her, and who might be a little shady as a college dropout dating a recent high schooler; one who might have been cheating on her; one who certainly wasn’t forthcoming with his history or possibly even his present. Premature gives us no idea of what father Isaiah could have been, but the film is less interested in the hypothetical possibilities of that road than it is in who Ayanna grows into. She changes her hairstyle, embracing a natural look. She revisits the location of their first kiss, and makes peace with it. She performs her poems for an audience. With her mother and her best friends by her side, she celebrates her departure for Bucknell. “What did I know of my heart at 17?” Ayanna wonders, and a line like that comes from a place of wisdom. Ayanna’s life had two paths forward, and she chose to stay on the one she had already decided for herself. After the abortion, Ayanna isn’t broken. It was a difficult choice and an experience that changed her, but with the love of her family and friends, she steps forward. She might even flourish. At the train station, leaving the city, Isaiah unexpectedly arrives on the platform. He sits next to her, but they don’t maintain a shared gaze. The person Ayanna had been with Isaiah might not exist anymore, and life goes on. Ayanna goes on.
Both Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Premature end with their young protagonists on a journey. In the former, Autumn returns to a place that is ostensibly home, but from which she is surely planning her final escape. Perhaps with Skylar at her side—perhaps back to New York. In the latter, Ayanna is leaving the only home she’s ever known, the one that has nourished her, to start again alone. Perhaps with Isaiah as a memory—or perhaps something more, if they end up talking on that train platform. In each film, these young women are at a crossroads, and every choice they make might not be the exact right one. But the depth that Never Rarely Sometimes Always offers Autumn and that Premature offers Ayanna makes them into characters we can recognize and relate to, with dreams and anxieties we can tangibly grasp, root for or fret over, and understand. And most importantly, the health care they choose is their own legal right, and the support to which they should have equal access should not be in question.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available for digital rental or purchase through Google Play, Prime Video, YouTube, iTunes, and other providers. Premature is streaming on Hulu as of May 22, 2020.
Image sources (in order of posting): IFC Films, Focus Features, Focus Features, IFC Films