Two teenage girls take a bus into New York City. From their small town in Pennsylvania, they are not traveling to see a show or have fun. They are going so that one of them can have an abortion without parental consent.
Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” has already become one of the most celebrated movies of the year. It won a special jury prize when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and picked up the second place grand jury prize at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s now playing in Los Angeles before it expands around the country.
It’s Hittman’s third feature film, following the acclaimed low budget dramas “It Felt Like Love” and “Beach Rats,” for which she won the directing prize at Sundance in 2017. Hittman’s style is something of a considered naturalism, shot in real locations and with bracing performances by screen newcomers, in this case Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder.
“I’m aware that it’s a small indie movie that might not reach an audience with views that don’t align with my politics,” Hittman said during a recent phone interview from New York, where she lives. “But at the same time, I think that it’s an important film to add to the conversation. In an ideal world, people who are anti-reproductive rights would know about the film, but I don’t anticipate them watching it. I anticipate them protesting it, but not seeing yet.”
In portraying a story that confronts one of the most divisive topics in contemporary American life, Hittman focuses on the specific difficulties of abortion access. Once Autumn (Flanigan) realizes that she is pregnant and that the only way to terminate the pregnancy without her parents finding out is by traveling to New York, she enlists her cousin Skylar (Ryder) to go along with her. When they unexpectedly find out that the procedure will require them to stay overnight, their journey becomes even more complicated financially, logistically and emotionally.
The film is an unusual release for Focus Features, the established art-house arm of Universal Pictures. The company is known for upscale, high-end prestige pictures such as last year’s “Downton Abbey” and “Harriet,” which makes the gritty neorealism of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” all the more of a contrast.
But this year, the company is releasing a string of films directed by women and focused on female-centered stories, such as Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma,” Nisha Ganatra’s “The High Note” and two movies that premiered alongside “Never Rarely” at Sundance: Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” and Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire.”
“Our experience is that the more specific the voices, the better the audience experience and our ability to get the movie out in a way that’s meaningful to people,” said Focus Chairman Peter Kujawski on what drew the company to Hittman’s project. “And it’s hard to think of American filmmakers who are more specific and more humanist and more identifiable in terms of an honesty in filmmaking approach than what Eliza had done with her previous features. So in a way, this is a very easy decision for us. And it felt very naturally like a Focus movie.”
“Because it is something that they don’t typically put out, I think that is why they took it on,” said producer Sara Murphy. “Knowing Eliza’s previous work, and like us falling in love with the script, I think they saw the potential of what the film could do and be and the noise it could make. It was really kind of a wonderful thing to be able to launch in Sundance and Berlin with the distributor supporting it and helping us to build the right campaign.”
So far, there has been no significant outcry over the movie, though the filmmakers are bracing themselves as it heads forward in release.
“We’re not scared of it being controversial,” said Murphy. “It’s a difficult topic, especially in America today, like literally today. I think the hope is not to polarize or be polemic, but to at least incite dialogue. That’s what’s exciting about this movie.”
“Although it had gestated for a long time with Eliza, at the point at which she sort of declared the moment is now, we moved fairly quickly to get it into production,” said producer Adele Romanski, an Oscar winner for “Moonlight.” “And I think that was a consciousness about the cultural and political moment we’re living in — which deeply saddened us, but also was a call to action for us as to why we needed to make the movie right now.”
The origins of the story date back to 2012, when Hittman heard of a woman in Ireland, Savita Halappanavar, who died after being denied an abortion following complications in her pregnancy. Hittman began doing her own research about abortion access in the U.S. by visiting small-town clinics and healthcare providers in Pennsylvania.
After the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, and while at Sundance with “Beach Rats” in 2017, she found herself drawn back to the story.
“Press started asking me, ‘What’s your next movie?’” Hittman recalled. “And it just kept coming out of my mouth that this was the most important next film that I could make.”
A sequence in which the girls simply wait around overnight in New York City’s Port Authority bus terminal, with nowhere else to go, amplifies an increasing sense of anxiety, as a viewer waits nervously for something terrible to happen to these vulnerable young woman.
“That sequence in particular is like walking the line that women are walking every day,” said Romanski. “There’s sort of a very persistent and low grade threat from the outside world, a predominantly masculine threat, that we’re always having to navigate.”
During the shoot, novice Flanigan, now 21, was simply finding her way on how to perform on camera. For the film’s centerpiece scene, which was shot in a single extended take, Autumn answers questions from a social worker with one of the four words that make up the film’s title. Flanigan conveys a deep reserve of emotions with waves of feeling washing over her.
“I thought I was gonna feel extremely anxious afterwards, but I was kind of goofy,” Flanigan recalled of the intense scene. “I looked at Eliza and she was like, ‘That was great. You think we could do it again?’ And that was kind of cathartic and I was like, ‘I feel too great right now.’ Wherever I went in order to create that moment and having to trigger something in order to have this moment in the scene, I ended up lifting a weight that never got reconciled, in some way.”
“The simplicity of the story was really what affected me the most,” said Ryder, a Broadway veteran at age 17 who will also be seen in the upcoming “West Side Story.” “It’s the small moments in the film, just the little things that everyone experiences, those things day-to-day, but they’re never really shown like they are in the film.”
Hittman is also a full-time professor at New York’s Pratt Institute. She took last spring off to shoot the movie, but was teaching while in post-production and continues even as she is promoting the film. Having also directed episodes of the television shows “High Maintenance” and “13 Reasons Why,” she has come to realize that she prefers the intimate feeling of her own sets.
“I tell [Focus] I can do anything you want [to promote the movie], I just have to teach on Wednesdays,” said Hittman. “It’s a lot, I’m not gonna lie, but at the same time, the stability of the [teaching] job has allowed me to make and invest a lot of time in projects that are more difficult. It’s given me some creative freedom, in a way. I don’t know if the life of an episodic director is for me.”
The movie doesn’t concern itself with who the father of Autumn’s child is or many of the details of her background and situation. (Autumn’s mother is played by musician and actress Sharon Van Etten, who also provides a new song, “Staring at a Mountain,” for the end of the film.) Rather, with its emphasis on the small realities of the girls’ experience, Hittman has created a movie that is extremely raw, direct and powerful.
“It’s not a film about the choice or the moral dilemma,” said Hittman. “It’s about the need.”