The Eliza Hittman film, streaming on BMS Stream, is a grounded take on the plight of young women in an increasingly conservative America
Autumn Callahan, a 17-year old from Pennsylvania, tries to get an abortion after an unplanned pregnancy. As the state requires parental consent for her to complete the procedure, she decides to go to New York with the help of her cousin, Skylar. The two girls must overcome several obstacles before they can return safely back home.
The film’s opening scene shows Autumn performing a guitar solo at a school event, only to be heckled by a boy in the audience who calls her a “slut”. There is a momentary lapse in performance before she regains her composure to finish her performance on a high as the audience erupts in cheer. This scene sets the tone of the film and establishes Autumn’s struggles within her own community. The scene works so well because of Sidney Flanigan’s immaculate performance as Autumn. A performance worthy of being revered as one of the best debuts in recent years.
The most discerning aspect of the film is the fact that it offers limited dialogues between its primary characters, and the narrative moves forward with the help of the subtle gestures and actions of the characters. The fact that it is shot in a documentary style provides the viewers with a more personal connection to the story. Autumn’s physical and mental pain are translated well on screen and puts viewers in her shoes so that they empathise with her plight.
The well-meaning staff at the local clinic try to convince her to go through her pregnancy by showing her an outdated anti-abortion video. The scene highlights the ignorance and the lack of resources in the more conservative states in America. Unfortunately for Autumn, home is not a safe space for her to confide her problems. Her father is a distant and petty man who torments his daughter for who she is, while her mother simply lacks the moral strength to stand up for her daughter.
Autumn’s only confidant is her cousin Skylar, played by Talia Ryder, whom she works with at the local store. Skylar is Autumn’s only pillar of strength and is shown to go out of her way to aid her cousin. Their journey from Pennsylvania to New York and back is unpleasant for several reasons. For Autumn the stress and anxiety that comes with her pregnancy is her main cause for concern. But for both teenagers the perverted men they come across is a constant cause for discomfort and fear. It is Hittman’s way of depicting what young women are subject to on a regular basis in society.
The scene with Autumn and the counsellor at the Manhattan clinic is crafted with care and is the most riveting scene in the film. The fact that it contains merely a series of questions that Autumn has to answer before her procedure is a testament to the screenplay and Flanigan’s performance. Autumn is asked to respond to these personal questions about her sex life and relationships with ‘never, rarely, sometimes, or always. Her silence and her eventual breakdown at some of the questions hint at her being a victim of physical and sexual abuse.
Towards the end of the film, Skylar’s significance to Autumn’s journey becomes more profound. It could be argued that without Skylar, Autumn would have had a very different trajectory concerning her story. Their bus journey back is bittersweet in some ways - even though they have found a way back home safe and sound, there are many hurdles that will come their way in a conservative patriarchal society.
Regardless of one’s personal views on abortion, Eliz Hittman’s film compels the viewers to be empathic towards its main characters. The film is an excellent social commentary on one of the most fiercely debated topics in the western world.