The 2020 film Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always is a celebration of female agency. It’s in the little enjoyments of life like sharing a snack or assisting with makeup. It’s in the bolder self-assertions enacted by splashing water in a face or skimming money from a sexually harassing manager. It is, centrally, in pursuing an out-of-state abortion.
I am no more interested in attacking the actions of the teenage mother Autumn and her cousin Skylar than the movie is in mounting a defense. Suffice it to say I stand against the movie and with Christian history in morally disapproving of the abortion. Many of us stop there in dealing with the issue. But Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always has more to offer than the tale of a single choice to be praised or condemned. Despite the small moments of empowerment, the movie knows that Autumn’s choices are rarely her own. In this acknowledgement it aligns with biblical teachings on sin—teachings we easily forget when we fixate on the choice of an individual mother in opposition to the life of her baby.
Though the plot ambles languidly, the thematic core is announced in the first scene. Students dance and sing in a talent show. The only performer to produce her own music is Autumn, accompanied by her guitar. She’s singing “He’s Got the Power” by The Exciters. Shortly into the song a male student shouts, “Slut!” Some other boys laugh. Autumn pauses to collect herself, then continues.
This scene provides the framework for the film’s view of its every conflict, including the abortion itself. A woman goes about her own business until disrupted, usually by a man treating her as a sexual object. She faces the obstacle by asserting her agency. In this case, Autumn’s agency comes from her position as performer. She is everyone’s focus, and she will not give ground to the jeer. Most times, the protagonists have no ability to stop what the man is doing and must simply absorb his objectifying or walk off while flipping the bird. Even here, the heckler earns laughter instead of rebuke or a shush.
The power differential follows our two protagonists to work, where a customer comes on to the teenage cashier. Their manager kisses their hands as they turn in their cashier drawers. Autumn must avoid male overreach at home, where her mother’s boyfriend speaks to her inappropriately and maybe as a predator. A passenger on the bus hits on them. In the subway, a man stares at the girls while masturbating.
The most complex interaction involves a young man who helps the women navigate New York City. They need direction and money, which he provides in exchange for company and multiple invitations to a party. The awkwardness of the exchange worsens when the girls ask for help paying for the bus fare home. He takes Skylar to get the money. Autumn follows to find them making out by a pillar. Recognizing the balance her cousin is making between bodily autonomy and the need to get home, Autumn slips behind the pillar and reaches a steadying hand out to Skylar.
The influence of men on Autumn is most stark when they are physically absent. A female social worker asks her a series of questions at a Planned Parenthood before her abortion.
“At what age did you first have sex?”
“How many sexual partners have you had in the last twelve months?”
“And how about in your lifetime?”
While watching this exchange, my wife Miranda, speaking from her lifetime as a woman in America, immediately recognized that Autumn had likely been sexually abused.
“Your partner’s threatened or frightened you. Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always?”
“Has your partner ever hit you, slapped you, or physically hurt you?”
“Has anyone forced you into a sexual act ever in your lifetime. Yes or no?”
After some prodding, Autumn manages, “Yeah.” She gives her reason for terminating the pregnancy as not being ready to be a mom. It’s enough for the social worker, as long as it isn’t coerced. No one is forcing Autumn to make this decision, but the glimpse we see into her life is enough to recognize that she is unable to make it independently. She is threatened by the man in her home. She’s influenced by peers who mock her for the same sexual activity in which they participate. She analyzes the threat of every man who hits on her. She has been forced to be the object of others’ sexual acts since she was fourteen. She is, in brief, constrained by sin.
We can well speak of sin’s limiting effects on the sinner. All people are, in Paul’s terms, “slaves to sin” because we choose it instead of righteousness (Rom. 6:16-18). We sin because we have sinned, and it is our natural choice. The clearest example of this in the film is the man sexually harassing the women on the subway by masturbating while leering at them. He is choosing to treat them like sexual objects, but given the context, it seems to be a result of habit more than of conscious thought. We can also view Autumn as a slave to her own sin. This movie encourages us to focus instead on the way Autumn is enslaved by the sins of others.
Speaking of enslavement to sins that are not our own goes back as far as Jesus’s announcement of his ministry and the prophet Isaiah whom he quoted:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord (Luke 4:17-22).
A limited perspective sees Jesus’s mission as the liberation of the individually captive wills of the world. Jesus also came to save people from the oppressive effects of all sin. In the Psalms, God is repeatedly asked to save from physical harm and oppression. If we always spiritualize this language, that says more about the freedom we already enjoy than about the (literal) prisons sin can build around others. My wife likens the effects of sin to a car wreck on the freeway. The next car—taking its own actions yet limited by the collision ahead—might slam on the brakes too fast or too slow, hurting more people, the damage rippling out from the inciting incident.
Autumn has been told she is men’s object to be used. Her will to assert herself notwithstanding, that message has shaped her actions. It has inclined her to sex, in line with research correlating childhood abuse with riskier and more frequent sexual activity. It has taught her that nowhere is completely safe, nudging her to hide her actions from her mother. It leads her to irrational decisions, such as refusing the social worker’s offer to find her a place to stay.
Much like the number of sexual partners, this is a telling moment. Autumn instinctively denies help even when it’s from someone she trusts, even when the alternative is wandering New York City all night long. Those who ache for the life of Autumn’s baby might scream for her or Skylar to call home for help. All it would cost is Autumn’s mother’s boyfriend finding out what she’s doing. It’s a cost Autumn could in theory pay, but why would she be likely to? She has already decided it is safer to sneak out of state than to seek parental consent for a procedure down the street from her house. She chose one dangerous path among precious few options.
Her alternatives to abortion are not, for her, much brighter. Before the New York trip, Autumn looks for help at a Christian crisis pregnancy center. Their version of discussing her options is a tape featuring mutilated fetuses opposite the promise that, “Once you have that beautiful baby in your arms, you’ll forget you had any doubts.” It’s a trite statement that countless people have doubtless found to be true, and it’s a future that Autumn knows is completely impossible. Adoption is not much better as long as she is unsafe at home, school, and work. There is no happy family life as a teenage mother that she can fathom. Before we add, in Paul’s immortal words, “But God,” we should remember that this is the opportunity for God’s people to intervene. This moment is where she could find support. And without finding out anything about her home and relationship situation, these people offer her the choice between brutal murder and a pipe dream.
The movie’s portrayal of this center is the worst case. Maybe churches in your area provide services that are better trained and more caring. Consider that this movie may be portraying the Christian pro-life movement in the way it is experienced by others. The lack of compassion is indicative of some—perhaps many—people’s interactions with Christian pro-life supporters and their outposts. Planned Parenthood does not offer Autumn a better option; what they offer is hope that things will be okay.
The movie itself offers a subdued feminist picture of hope. It is more feminist than pro-choice, and not just because it doesn’t feel the need to defend the decision to abort. The difficulties Autumn overcomes in obtaining an abortion are less about pro-life ideology and more about all-encompassing patriarchy. This hierarchy of interests helps explain, if not excuse, modern feminism’s intense identification with the pro-choice movement. Free choices, this movie argues, are precious few for women. Having done so much to sexualize and control women, society should not stamp out their choice about whether to continue a pregnancy. Despite disagreeing with this argument in its absence of concern for the fetus’s life, I thank the film for presenting the perspective so clearly.
We cannot agree with the movie in its every thematic conclusion. We can, in our own minds and conversations, make room for a person like Autumn. Jesus came to save people like her, oppressed and fatherless. She carries her own sins and those of many others in every choice she makes. See her sin, and in the name of Jesus who came to relieve the burdens of the enslaved, see the sins of others, too.