Released 2020. Director: Eliza Hittman
THE SYNOPSIS MAY BE A HARD SELL. A TEENAGER accompanied by her cousin take a bus from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to get an abortion. There may not be a lot there to interest many people. But to dismiss it out of hand as just an abortion movie is like labelling Million Dollar Baby just a boxing movie.
The vulnerability of young women is rarely depicted in such an unadorned yet frighteningly private way as in director Eliza Hittman’s quietly forceful movie about teenage pregnancy and abortion.
The journey Hittman details, following 17-year-old Autumn and her cousin Skylar, is almost a docu-drama. Keenly observed, often impassive and unconcerned with melodrama or sensationalising a hot-button issue, the movie is direct and never short of honesty and sympathy.
It would be easy to take a stand but Hittman hasn’t made a movie to preach. Instead, the movie comes across more as a projection of a state of mind as Hittmam casts her characters against their surroundings and lets the sense of unease and contrast simply manifest without any deliberate embellishment or manipulation. This results in believable scenarios, a slice of real life and not a manufactured tale of girls in peril in a big city. All the same, you could feel the threat just lurking around them, and the apprehension within.
Hittman may not have depicted New York City as a place of danger at every corner for a couple of vulnerable out-of-town teenage girls, but the city definitely comes across distant, very impersonal and cold in more than one sense of the word. When the procedure turns out taking much longer than anticipated and requires an overnight wait, Autumn and Skylar find themselves in need of a place to rest their heads and short of money.
Skylar calling up Jasper, with whom she exchanged phone numbers on the bus just to humour him, takes on an added dimension of caution and predatorial disquiet. There’s always a price for everything and in exchange for bus-ticket money Skylar submits herself to making out with Jasper at a corner. Autumn reaching from behind the pillar to link her pinkie with Skylar’s is a tiny gesture but just about the saddest thing about the whole trip.
As much a story about a woman’s decision to choose for herself, it is also about the bond between the cousins. There for each other, Autumn and Skylar’s relationship is a ray of light in an otherwise clouded episode of their young lives.
As Autumn and Skylar, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are diamonds in the rough. The understated yet compelling presence they bring to the screen is moody and haunting. Hittman hasn’t written many lines for the pair and the two actresses manage to convey much even in unspoken moments. Mostly sad and withdrawn, Autumn has one particularly strong scene with a psychologist assessing her mental wellbeing which hints at disturbing elements in some of her sexual encounters.
Unlike Juno (a delightful movie with a different take on teenage pregnancy) this is not a happy story about an unexpected bun in the oven. The lack of material and emotional support is frightening but the isolation must be a lot worse. Autumn has an ally in her cousin Skylar who shares an implicit understanding, even stealing money so they can make the trip to the abortion clinic in New York but many others in a similar situation may not even have a choice or a say.
Just as students of literature are required to watch movie adaptations of classics, this movie should be compulsory viewing in the classroom for education and caution.
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