Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
Reflecting on recent developments around abortion rights in the United States — the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade and a flurry of subsequent legislative and electoral moves in the states — I was reminded of a trio of films from the past few years that, given these recent events, have only become more salient, prescient even.
Much like I was feeling after the Uvalde school shooting, I find myself grasping at any possible way to reconcile the situation, to make sense of where we are and where we’re going. In the case of Uvalde, and the film “Mass,” I wrote about how popular media, especially motion pictures, are empathy machines. They help us step into the experience of people who’ve walked a different path and faced different challenges than our own.
In the case of the changing abortion landscape, we’ve been analyzing the implications for rural people from several different angles here at the Daily Yonder. But this studied analysis, no matter how clearly and effectively it’s communicated, can only tell part of the story. Behind every piece of politics and policy, there are the people who face the impact head on. I offer the selections below because of how they fill in the rest of that picture, capturing the humanity underlying the debates and data points.
Engaging with these stories now can be a dire and heartbreaking exercise, there’s no doubt, but it’s been a necessary one for me, as I seek to better understand how the women in my life might be feeling amid this disruptive chapter in our history. Whether you are similarly compelled by that reasoning or not, I can’t escape the sense that these films, each with a rural angle, demand a second look for how much they meet the moment we’re in.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
This indie film from 2020 follows the experience of a teenage girl from rural Pennsylvania facing an unexpected pregnancy and limited options for accessing an abortion. Not to be confused with Hulu’s “Plan B,” a 2021 film with a very similar premise — or the award-winning “Juno” for that matter — “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is not especially light or comedic in tone. It’s a much more uncompromising film than those others in its class. It offers an intimate and detailed look at the circumstances of our lead character, conveying the difficulty and desperation that comes with facing such a major life event without adequate supports.
The emotional core of the film is in Sidney Flanigan’s lead performance. The challenges that have been well articulated in our public discourse — such as women having to travel long distances for care or not having the means to overcome gaps and barriers in access — are brought painfully to life here. Through Flanigan, we are forced to sit with the vulnerability that is ever-present in each fraught moment. We would all do well to sit in those moments, sure to become only more common in many places going forward.
What the Constitution Means to Me
I first saw “What the Constitution Means to Me” when the stage production made its debut in Minneapolis. On that occasion, I was struck by the feeling that it ought to be staged everywhere, in schools, libraries, and, in keeping with its own set design, community centers and VFW halls. Though the show is best known for its Broadway run and later toured large theaters across the country, its origins are much humbler.
The playwright and star, Heidi Schreck of small-town Wenatchee, Washington, adapted the show from her own teenage experience traveling to VFW halls across the country to compete in speech competitions about the U.S. Constitution. In keeping with those roots, this is a deep examination of our founding document, theater by way of your high-school civics class or debate club. But beyond that, it’s a powerful piece of political memoir.
Over the course of the show, Schreck slowly reveals more and more of her own story. What starts as a straight recreation of her 15-year-old self’s scholarship-winning speeches eventually becomes something much more complex, as Schreck pulls back the curtain on her personal histories and family traumas. The way she intertwines these two elements, using the U.S. Constitution as a vehicle to examine peril and progress for the women in her family and community, is what makes the show so unique and so urgent.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” was first produced in 2017, and you can easily see how its storytelling, and its reception, would gain enlarged impact against the backdrop of the Trump presidency and the women’s marches of that era. Suffice to say, it has only become more profound now. Much of Schreck’s scrutiny of the Constitution focuses on the evolution of the document by way of our Supreme Court justices and their interpretations over the years.
In that regard, there is no shortage of anger and dismay on offer here, but the play ends with hope and conviction. Its foremost goal is to illuminate our civic obligations and the unending work to live up to the ideals of our democracy. Underscoring that point, everyone in attendance of each live show leaves with a pocket Constitution to take with them.
Regrettably, “What the Constitution Means to Me” hasn’t made its way to town halls across America. However, thanks to a recent trend of the streaming era, you can watch a filmed recording of the show from the comfort of your own home — or put on a viewing party against the wood-paneled walls of your own community’s VFW hall. This version does a great job capturing the spirit of the in-person experience, save for the free pocket Constitution.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
This final selection does not directly concern abortion rights and political affairs in the same fashion as the previous two, but it feels of a piece all the same. “Men,” the latest film from director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina,” “Annihilation”), follows Harper, a woman taking a weekend retreat at a remote cottage in the English countryside. Her visit comes on the heels of a traumatic experience with her husband, which begins to haunt her trip in subtle and eventually supernatural ways.
Like Garland’s previous films, there are horror and thriller elements here, particularly in the film’s second half. The central creative hook, made apparent in the film’s trailers and marketing, is that all the men in the remote village are played by one actor, Rory Kinnear. It’s a consistently evocative, often unsettling film, both in the execution of this casting choice and in general. You will likely leave the experience not knowing entirely what to make of what you just saw, particularly when it comes to a final scene that pushes the envelope in a truly jarring direction. Whatever you think of the movie, its ending is the kind that prompts reactions and conversations no matter what.
For my part, I found “Men” to be a thought-provoking exploration of the many kinds of trauma women might carry when it comes to their relationships with men, as well as the many kinds of cruelty men are capable of inflicting on women — not just the most overt, offensive examples but also more subtle manifestations of entitlement and power. “Men” won’t beat you over the head with these ideas, but it may get you thinking about them in a new way.
“Men” is available to rent or buy on disc and via digital media platforms.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.