There are many films which seem to be influenced by Joseph Campbell’s famous book The Hero of a Thousand Faces (first published in 1949), which is about his conception of an archetypal storytelling pattern known as “the hero’s journey.” They include but are not limited to Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), The Lion King (1994), and The Matrix (1999). But one of the most interesting uses of the hero’s journey (even though it is probably unintentional) doesn’t come from a blockbuster like the ones I have just described. Rather, it is in Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020).
At a first glance, this film would not seem to be one that features the hero’s journey. Instead of a male hero who gains magical powers like Luke Skywalker or Neo, Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows Autumn (Sidney Flannigan), a 17-year-old girl who lives in rural Pennsylvania. Instead of having a large goal like defeating an evil empire or liberating humanity from sentient machines, Autumn just wants to get an abortion after she discovers that she is pregnant. The journey that she undertakes is much more common, as she merely takes a bus to New York City after discovering that Pennsylvania’s laws will not permit her to get an abortion there instead of flying throughout space or escaping the Matrix. In contrast to the fantastical worlds inhabited by the protagonists I’ve named above, Autumn lives in contemporary America, and writer-director Eliza Hittman (IU, ‘01, Theatre and Drama) accentuates her film’s sense of realism in part through extreme close-ups which emphasize mundane details and real emotions.
But you can start to see similarities between Hittman’s film and Campbell’s storytelling pattern when you learn more about his ideas. Campbell provided this short summary of the hero’s journey as a whole in the first edition of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He described it in the following way:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Given that definition, Never Rarely Sometimes Always fits into this storytelling archetype (which Campbell also referred to as a “monomyth”) surprisingly well. The “hero” is Autumn, and the “world of common day” she at first inhabits is her small town in rural Pennsylvania. She undertakes a journey from her hometown into the “region of supernatural wonder” that is New York City, which makes her hometown look like a tiny village. Once there, Autumn encounters the “fabulous forces” which range from a chicken who beats her in a game of tic-tac-toe to Social Worker #2 (Kelly Chapman, a real-life abortion counselor whom Hittman casted after meeting her during research for this film), who treats her with more kindness than most of the people from her hometown. The “decisive victory” is Autumn getting her abortion. While she does not gain “boons” to bestow upon her community, Autumn is ultimately able to return home, just as heroes have been doing since the time of The Odyssey.
Hittman’s use of story tropes related to the hero’s journey — including but not limited to how Autumn’s meeting with Social Worker #2 is an example of the “meeting the Goddess” narrative beat so she can receive help from her to accomplish her goal — whether intentional or not, is a fantastic way to build empathy for her protagonist. Women who want/need abortions often receive stigma, both in real life and this film. By tying Autumn’s specific quest to get an abortion to this archetypal narrative which is familiar and beloved by millions, this film’s writer-director elevates her from an ordinary young woman whom many people who have anti-abortion ideas might dislike to a heroic figure who can be respected and admired within a traditional cultural context. Her story may not change the minds of everyone who is against abortion but, at the very least, the fact that it is told within the format of the hero’s journey makes Autumn and her desire to have an abortion more easily understandable than if it were presented within the structure of an avant-garde drama.
Hittman follows the narrative beats of the hero’s journey right up to the end of her story. Having received her abortion, Autumn and her cousin Skylar get on a bus to go home. Hittman films Autumn in a close-up, her journey complete, as she starts to nod off into a deep sleep. This final shot is a perfect visual expression of the last stage of the hero’s journey, which Campbell referred to as “freedom to live.” In that narrative beat, the protagonist has overcome their fear of death and has learned to appreciate a moment with the knowledge that it will not change who they have become. That matches up perfectly with the narrative content of this shot. We have no idea of what will happen to Autumn next. We don’t know whether she will get a full-time job, or go to college, or have a positive romantic relationship. But as she closes her eyes, her task accomplished and with a slight smile on her face, Autumn is permitted to appreciate a moment of peace and the freedom to live as she chooses.
It is a freedom which has been taken from millions of American women and transgender people who can become pregnant in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, but it is one which they may regain. Last year, Michigan amended its constitution to guarantee the right to an abortion and more recently removed a 1931 ban that would offer criminal penalties to people who have abortions. In addition, there are a host of pro-choice bills in Pennsylvania which await passage. The journey to ensure that every American who needs access to a safe abortion can get one will only be successful if people show as much determination as Autumn does in this brilliant film.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always will be screened at IU Cinema with a post-film Q&A on March 21 as part of the series Reproductive Justice on Screen.
Eliza Hittman has been a guest of IU Cinema in 2013 with fellow filmmaker Hannah Fidell, 2017, and 2020.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.