The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Abortion is complex. This movie about a pregnant teen captures the messiness, in excruciating fashion.

Sidney Flanigan in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” (Focus Features)
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(4 stars)

With a handful of states using the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to deprive women of their right to terminate a pregnancy, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” arrives as a fervent reminder of the consequences of such cynical sanctimony. In this superbly crafted drama, two teenage girls are forced to navigate a system seemingly designed to foil their autonomy and dignity at every turn: While on paper concepts like parental notification and waiting periods can seem benign — if not downright common sense — in this microscopically detailed portrait, their disastrous implications loom larger with every tick of the clock.

Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a high school student who looks just as unhappy as most of her peers in an unnamed Pennsylvania town; quiet and reserved, she doesn’t have many friends and isn’t close with her mother and man-child of a stepfather (played by Sharon Van Etten and Ryan Eggold, respectively). Autumn’s closest confidante is her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), who bags groceries with her at the local supermarket. When Autumn discovers that she’s pregnant, it’s Skylar she turns to — after trying to induce an abortion by punching herself in the stomach and overdosing on vitamin C.

The two travel to Manhattan, embarking on an odyssey that is sure to remind many filmgoers of the searing 2007 Romanian drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.” In fact, writer-director Eliza Hittman was reportedly inspired to make “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” as a feminist response to what she perceived as the male gaze of that movie. With an unadorned, naturalistic style that heavily favors intense close-ups, Hittman plunges viewers into the subjectivity of her protagonists, whose jumble of feelings — dread and confusion, determination and ambivalence, resignation and relief — play out with every glance and gesture, and very few words.

Indeed, Autumn is such a recessive, cipher-like character — and newcomer Flanigan plays her with such affectless understatement — that it comes as a shock when, in a crucial scene at a women’s health clinic, she finally gives in to the welter of emotions that she’s kept in check for so long. In that single moment, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” goes from being a very good movie to an outright tour de force, with Flanigan undergoing an astonishing transformation in real time, and bringing the audience to a place that transcends glib moralizing or even more thoughtful equivocation.

If Autumn is the putative protagonist of “Never,” it’s Skylar who emerges as the film’s hero, with Ryder playing her character with just the right blend of angelic self-sacrifice and resolute grit. Although the film never spells out the precise circumstances of Autumn’s pregnancy, it does portray in queasy detail the aggressions — micro and macro — that Skylar is forced to endure on a daily basis, from being creeped on by a customer and assaulted by her manager to deflecting the flirtatious banter of an eager young man (flawlessly played by Théodore Pellerin) on the bus to New York. With “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Hittman does an excruciatingly accurate job of conveying the complexities of the abortion debate. But perhaps even more valuably, she portrays the misogynistic social space it takes place in. With empathy and outrage that cut equally deeply, Hittman reminds us: This is a girl’s life in a man’s world.

PG-13. Available April 3 on demand. Contains disturbing, mature thematic elements, strong language, some sexual references and teen drinking. 95 minutes.