The indie filmmaker’s third feature, ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always,’ is one of the most acclaimed movies of the year.
A “procedural drama,” a “road movie,” a “story of female friendship:” These aren’t the most typical words for a film about a teenager pursuing an abortion beneath her parents’ notice, but they’re how Jewish filmmaker Eliza Hittman describes her newest work.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which won a special jury prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, had a curtailed release on March 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Distributor Focus Features premiered the film on numerous video on demand (VOD) providers in April.
The word “procedural” is particularly apt; for in Hittman’s third feature, the decision to get an abortion itself doesn’t prove much of a struggle. Instead, it’s the act of obtaining one that for Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan), a suburban Pennsylvania minor, is the trouble — and which forces her to seek out a clinic in less tightly-regulated New York.
Hittman’s trajectory as she researched the project, visiting various locations and gathering videos she called “sketches,” roughly mirrors the film’s.
“My process was to try as much as possible to take the journey of the character,” Hittman told the Jewish News. “I chose a town where the film would be set, and I really walked through the town as if I were the character. And I thought about where she would work and where her house would be. And if she was pregnant where she would go. I went into a pregnancy care center and I took a pregnancy test, and I went through the counseling sessions, and I hopped on the bus, a Greyhound bus, the only bus that comes through town, and I took it to New York.”
Spending ample time in interstitial spaces (cold walks, waiting rooms, New York’s Port Authority terminal), the film’s driven by Hittman’s familiarity with each setting and sense of intimacy with the actors, granting it a sense of credible, offhand grit.
“I was raised in New York City. Both of my parents were raised Jewish. I think they were more culturally Jewish, celebrating all of the high holy days and the holidays,” Hittman recalled. “I didn’t grow up going to Sunday school or to Hebrew school. So it’s part of my cultural landscape.”
Though Hittman characterizes her work as more centered on sexual than religious identity — especially that of young people — she sees a stronger focus on religion as a possibility down the line.
“Judaism hasn’t yet played a part in my filmmaking, but that’s not to say it won’t eventually,” Hittman remarked. She also pointed to her lead character’s Catholic background in 2017’s Beach Rats — which informed and heightened his struggles with his sexuality — as a way religion has been featured in her work.
In shaping each film, Hittman said she approaches the challenges and struggles of each character on their own terms.
“I think what’s important for me is to show the pain that young people go through in navigating their identity,” she said. “I always think of my films as being outtakes from conventional coming-of-age movies because they show these sort of solitary painful moments, where people are wrestling with themselves.”
While Hittman found few models for her work on Never Rarely, she did mention 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which won the prestigious Golden Palm at France’s Cannes Film Festival, as precedent. The 1987-set film (which she calls “masterful”) follows two women’s attempts to find an illegal abortion provider in communist Romania.
“I was thinking about that movie and why filmmakers are always tempted to make politicized works about the past. And how challenging it can be to explore current politics on screen,” she said. “And decided to approach [my] film thinking about it through the challenges of getting a legal abortion in contemporary America. And how can we make that compelling and cinematic, and an honest reflection of what women go through?”
For Hittman, the process often starts with getting out into the world and conducting her own research.
“It’s a really exciting process for me to be on my feet and writing from the world, and not just being home in front of a computer.”
That sense of firsthand experience and real-world texture may feel alien this second, but it’s abundant in what Hittman’s put onscreen.
‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ is currently available for rental on VOD platforms including iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play for $9.99.