It’s been an eventful week for the MPA (formerly the MPAA). In between handing down PG-13 ratings to titles like “A Quiet Place: Part II” and “The New Mutants” the ratings board also slotted in the most important film rating of the year: Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” Per the MPA, Hittman’s latest film is rated PG-13 for “disturbing/mature thematic content, language, some sexual references, and teen drinking.”
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Hittman’s acclaimed abortion drama that won major prizes at Sundance, stars newcomer Sidney Flanigan as a Pennsylvania teenager who discovers she is pregnant. State law dictates that a legal guardian must give permission for an abortion, so the teen joins her cousin (Talia Ryder) on a trip to New York City, where the abortion can be done without parental consent. The film contains enough suggestive sexual material and frank discussions about sex, abuse, and other adult topics that it wouldn’t have been a surprise for the MPA to hand it an R-rating. With a PG-13 rating, “Never Rarely” gets to be seen by the audience that most needs it.
Variety and The Guardian film critic Guy Lodge celebrated the rating on social media not long after it was reported, writing, “Glad to see the film has a PG-13 rating in the US, where practically anything remotely adult-themed gets an R: it’s a film that everyone should see, but that could be life-changing for some teens.”
Lodge makes a great point. Two of the last decade’s most vital coming-of-age films were Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” and Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade,” both of which were branded with R ratings. “Boyhood” included “sexual references and teen drug and alcohol use,” while “Eighth Grade” got an R rating for “language and some sexual material.”
These R ratings limited young teenagers from seeing films that spoke to the teenage experience with honesty and authenticity. More importantly, the R ratings for “Boyhood” and “Eighth Grade” exposed the ludicrousness of the then MPAA’s rating system. The use of more than one F-bomb immediately calls for an R-rating, which hurt “Eighth Grade” even though most teenagers are using curse words daily. “Eighth Grade” would have still gotten an R-rating had it only contained one F-bomb because there’s also a scene where characters talk about a “blow job.” It seems the MPAA views conversations teens 18 and younger are having in real life as only suitable to be seen in theaters by those 18 and older.
IndieWire’s Chris O’Falt slammed the “Eighth Grade” rating in July 2018, arguing, “The irony is the film shows nothing that isn’t part of middle school sex ed, and the underlying message about social media, nude selfies, and being pressured into having sex is the exact conversation educators struggle to have with their students. Burnham’s film is an incredible aid to those adults. It uses the medium to do what movies can do so well: Make the viewer emotionally relate to what a character is thinking and feeling.”
Common Sense Media, the industry’s go-to source of entertainment recommendations for families and schools, did not agree with the MPAA in these cases. The group said “Boyhood” was suitable for teenagers as young as 15 years old, while parent users on that site said “Boyhood” would be fine for viewers as young as 14 years old. Common Sense said “Eighth Grade” was safe for 14-year-olds and above, even with two F-bombs and a discussion about oral sex.
Hittman’s matter-of-fact storytelling in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” makes the film an essential and non-didactic look at the abortion process. For teenagers who read about abortions in textbooks, the film offers a chance to emotionally understand the process and learn some of the insider specifics about how Planned Parenthood operates. Hittman even cast real Planned Parenthood workers to make the film as authentic to the real world as possible.
“Never Rarely” could be more effective in communicating the abortion process than most health classes are around the country, which makes its PG-13 rating matter. As Lodge wrote, it might even save some teenagers’ lives now that they have the MPA’s permission to see it.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is opening in select theaters beginning March 13 from Focus Features.