In America, that land of extremes and entrenched positions, abortion is a battle ground. Freely available in some states, frowned on in others, it continues to provoke bitter arguments, vicious accusations, even exchanges of gunfire. Caught in the middle of all this are the young women afflicted with an unwanted pregnancy, who are often treated as pariahs when they dare to look for help.
It's an emotional subject, no question, but Eliza Hittman approaches it with a cool but sympathetic eye in this moving and perceptive drama that was very well received at Sundance and in Berlin.
When we first meet 17-year-old Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan), she's bravely singing about male oppression at a high school concert. As she performs, a boy in the audience heckles her - her song is self-fulfilling.
Autumn is upset about the incident and while her mother is sympathetic, her dad seems indifferent, if not positively hostile. Though no specifics are given, something is amiss in this father/daughter relationship: at one point, the dad fondles the family dog in a vaguely creepy way that suggests this is not the first being he's inappropriately touched. Autumn keeps her distance from him and is clearly biding her time until she's old enough to flee.
Meanwhile, she spends most of her free time working the checkouts at the local supermarket alongside her best friend Skylar (Talia Ryder). And what a friend she proves to be because when Autumn discovers that she's pregnant, it's Skylar who pulls out all the stops to help. No details are given regarding the father: he is not consulted and Autumn seems pretty convinced he wouldn't give a damn anyway. She's very sure she's not ready to be a mother, but she gets little help when she visits a nearby crisis pregnancy centre.
"Are you abortion minded?" asks the passive-aggressive female attendant who sees Autumn, before showing her a dreadful shock tactics anti-abortion video full of terror and misinformation. In Pennsylvania, Autumn later discovers, a 17-year-old cannot have an abortion without her parents' consent. Heartbreakingly, she tries homemade methods, taking pills, punching herself in the belly, and as you watch, you become ever surer that this pregnancy does not hail from a happy place.
Into the breach steps the more level-headed Skylar, who pulls together enough money to get them both on a bus to New York. Off they journey through the old rust belt, past hard-pressed communities that voted for Trump and may now be regretting it, bearing down on a city where anything, good or awful, is possible.
When they finally reach the Manhattan clinic, Catholic maniacs guard its entrance and inside, Autumn discovers that the grim process will take two days. With little money and nowhere to stay, the girls ride around on the subway and wander the streets all night, trying to dodge the creeps. The process having begun, Autumn is now in pain and seems in any case broken, deflated - we hardly ever see her smile. But by her side constantly is Skylar, saying little, but unerringly steadfast, not needing to be told what torments her friend is going through.
The film's title comes from a terse but brilliantly effective sequence in which Autumn answers a questionnaire. Patiently, calmly, a counsellor at the clinic asks her has her sexual partner refused to wear a condom, threatened her, hit her, forced her to have sex - "never, rarely, sometimes, often". And as she answers in teary nods, we begin to realise that the teenager has endured one and perhaps a series of violent, abusive relationships.
Little wonder she has no wish to bring the proceeds into the world, but Autumn will be put through the wringer by a society that refuses to consider the impact of an unwanted pregnancy on a teenage girl, and by people who persist in believing that someone would take this decision lightly and breeze merrily through the awful medical process it entails.
There's something very clean and simple and affecting about the way Hittman dramatises all this: there's practically no music, no gimmicks, little dialogue, just two friends making their way through an emotional and actual labyrinth. New York City might have been cleaned up in recent decades, but is still pretty salty after dark, and Hittman makes it clear that, in America at any rate, the only thing that separates you from squalor is money.
The performances of the two leads are unfussy, excellent - particularly during a mournful scene in a seedy karaoke bar where Autumn sings broken-heartedly into the void, while Skylar endures the company of a tone-deaf admirer who may be able to help them. Autumn never thanks her friend, but perhaps feels that little word would not be adequate to the task. She has endured so much, while the man who placed her in this invidious position endures precisely nothing.
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Poland, like Ireland, has not quite lost its fascination with clerics. This thoughtful, edgy drama from Jan Komasa explores the priest’s pastoral role through the eyes of an imposter, namely Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a young Warsaw delinquent who escapes from detention and ends up in a country town where he pretends to be the new curate. While the parish priest dries out in a clinic, Daniel becomes more involved with the community, and even displays a flare for comforting folk traumatised by a recent road tragedy. Komasa’s film is well judged, and nicely ambivalent about the comforts and contradictions of Catholicism.
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The long shadow of Stephen King hangs heavy over this cheerfully nasty little horror that is derivative, no question, but also amiably unpretentious. Teenager Ben (John-Paul Howard) is busy falling in and out of love when he becomes concerned about the creepy household next door, whose matriarch (Zarah Mahler) appears to be acting strangely. That might be because she’s possessed by the spirit of an ancient witch who makes flowers droop, but has the opposite effect on men and enjoys nothing more than feasting on small children. Daft stuff, but Brett and Drew Pierce’s film rattles along with great intent, and has a sense of humour.