Late in Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always, 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), who is pregnant and in all kinds of trouble, calls her mother from a public bathroom far from her Pennsylvania coal-town home. Her mother asks where she is in a quavering child's voice. After a pause Autumn hangs up, inspects herself in the bathroom mirror, and squares her shoulders.
If you saw Hittman's It Felt Like Love (2013) or her Beach Rats (2017), you'll know that the writer-director has little use for exposition. Her scripts are as spare as her soundtracks, so we can't be sure whether this is a coming-of-age moment for Autumn. To the extent that Never Rarely Sometimes Always (the title is drawn from a standard questionnaire administered by abortion providers) is a social issue movie, it's "about" reproductive rights in the same way that the formally similar recent film The Assistant is "about" sexual assault. Meaning that Hittman attends with near-reverent care to the subjective experience of a traumatized soul who's struggling to take charge of her own destiny. An exacting but artfully suggestive realist, the director offers many mirror shots of Autumn to let us into the interior life of a proud, obstinate young woman confronting a neglectful or hostile adult world.
Flanigan, a Buffalo musician in her first acting role, serves up a held-in Autumn whose dull eyes and sullen glower barely conceal the tumult seething inside her. Certain that she wants to terminate her pregnancy but lacking support and money, she turns to a testing clinic that turns out to be an anti-abortion center where, through ineptitude or ulterior motive, she is fed inaccurate information about how far along she is.
Tagging along behind her devoted cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), Autumn heads for New York City, where the camera holds tight on the two girls as they stumble through numerous obstacles in search of safety and self-definition.