The Best Movie of 2020 So Far Is an Abortion ‘Thriller’—And You Can Watch It Now
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” director Eliza Hittman on its harrowing inspiration, chilly reception from Hollywood men, and releasing her film in the middle of a pandemic.
Has your partner refused to wear a condom? Never, rarely, sometimes, or always?
Has your partner made you have sex when you didn’t want to? Never, rarely, sometimes, or always?
Has your partner ever messed with your birth control? Never, rarely, sometimes, or always?
The prying questions, interrogating a girl’s sexual history, are derived from real standard intake forms administered by counselors at sexual health and abortion clinics. They inspire the title of the new drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which became available on-demand Friday following a theatrical run cut short by recent cinema closures.
Seventeen-year-old Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan) arrives with her cousin, Skyler (Talia Ryder), to New York City with nothing but a suitcase. They hopped a bus with nowhere to stay, lying to their parents about their whereabouts.
The clinic in their rural Pennsylvania hometow—the area of the state sometimes dismissed as “Pennsatucky”—will only offer pro-life missives. “This is the most magical sound you will ever hear,” the technician coos while delivering an ultimately inaccurate sonogram. Because Pennsylvania state law requires minors get the consent of their parents in order to have an abortion, Autumn sees no recourse but to cross state lines to seek the procedure.
The counselor at the New York City clinic they eventually find is warm and kind, but their exchange is exhausting. The questions, increasingly invasive, continue for almost 10 brutal minutes.
Throughout the entirety of the interview, the camera is trained on Autumn’s face, never looking away as she struggles to hold her steely resolve and eventually cracking and crumbling—from the fatigue, from the personal nature of the questions, from the gravity of what is happening, from the counselor’s compassion, from everything she had to go through just to get there.
Only at the beginning of the scene, when Autumn first meets the counselor, does the camera cut from her to establish a little bit of context. “It could have been just an 11-minute take on Sidney,” says writer and director Eliza Hittman. “She nailed it on the first try. We used the very first take. I just wanted to strip everything back and just have it be as pure as possible.”
The 11 minutes seem interminable. For many audience members, it’s the first time they’re exposed to that standard abortion clinic questionnaire. The sequence is an emotional powder keg: a defining moment in this character’s life and, in turn, the film and its message.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is Hittman’s follow-up to 2017’s Beach Rats, the queer indie about a teenage boy from Brooklyn who begins cruising men for hookups that won her the directing award at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. Along with her 2013 debut It Felt Like Love, they comprise a trilogy that excavates the underlying pain in coming of age and coming of sexuality.
The film debuted to ecstatic reviews at this year’s Sundance, with critics astonished at the urgency and bracing honesty with which it depicts the reality of abortion access for many young women in the U.S.
Every step of Autumn’s journey means overcoming significant obstacles and, once she and Skyler are stranded in New York, danger. Early press for the film focused on that surprising intensity and tone. “I like that people think of it as kind of an everyday thriller,” Hittman says.
Our first conversation about the film took place over breakfast at a cafe in New York on the eve of its initial limited theatrical release, March 13—which happened to also be the eve of a national shutdown. Hittman was trying to be level-headed about everything at the time.
“It’s always hard, I think, to celebrate things anyway,” she said. “Making a movie is so stressful that it’s hard to turn off and then just be like, ‘Hooray!’ There’s always something else on the horizon that’s going to determine the future of the movie and how it’s perceived. Now there’s an act of God.”
Focus Features scrapped the planned theatrical expansion of Never Rarely Sometimes Always one week into its run, following a catastrophic opening-weekend box office owed to those cinema closures—a tally hardly commensurate to the rave reviews and fawning press the film received.
Now, however, Hittman’s work joins a revolutionary slate of films, including The Invisible Man, Onward, and Emma, to thwart typical theatrical release windows and be made available for on-demand viewing while audiences are, in essence, held captive in their homes.
Talking over the phone from her New York City apartment on the day Never Rarely Sometimes Always became available on-demand, Hittman says that it wasn’t exactly the release strategy she envisioned for her film.
After it was pulled from theaters last month, Focus was considering relaunching the film in theaters in July. But as the pandemic forecast escalated day by day, there was concern over whether theaters would even be open then. Plus, the theatrical landscape was looking more and more crowded, with so many movies shifting their release dates, threatening a cinematic pile-up.
“Ultimately, the decision was made by Focus to capitalize on all of the good energy around the film and hope that it can find an audience while people are stuck at home,” Hittman says.
Given the subject matter—the extent to which a teenage girl must uproot and risk her life in order to access an abortion—a release at this moment is also upsettingly resonant. Six Republican-led states have passed measures to dramatically curtail abortion access in the wake of coronavirus shutdowns and varying intepretations of what medical procedures are deemed “essential services.”
“Unfortunately, the movie has become more relevant in the pandemic,” Hittman says. “There’s a lot of states that are using the past to play a dangerous political game with people’s lives. I hope that the film reaches a vulnerable population who might relate to the main character even more in this moment.”
In 2013, Hittman read about Savita Halappanavar, a woman living in Ireland who, because of laws at the time, was denied an abortion during a miscarriage and died of a septic infection as a result. Hittman then bought a book called Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, about abortion trails from Ireland to London and back.
She began thinking about images of women on the run, eventually writing a script treatment about two women in the Irish countryside who must secretly travel to London for one of them to have an abortion.
Hittman was still a new director, with only It Felt Like Love under her belt. She didn’t have an agent or a studio behind her, and couldn’t conceptualize how to make a movie set in Ireland. So she began thinking about how to transpose the story to a U.S. setting. “It was depressingly easy to do.”
She read an article about women coming to New York City and sleeping on benches because they were past the point when they could legally have abortions in their home states, and became fixated on the idea of their one harrowing night in New York.
When she started pitching the movie, there was no interest. It was 2014 and, she says, nobody thought the story was relevant. “Nobody was talking about abortion. That’s a Trump conversation, but the same issues existed then. So you know, I think that Trump is like this incredibly destructive force in this country, but it also just raised people’s awareness so much more.”
Trump’s inauguration happened to coincide with the premiere of Beach Rats at Sundance. The film was one of that year’s buzziest titles and Hittman was suddenly doing a ton of press. Everyone kept asking what her next project was going to be, so she kept pitching this movie, essentially speaking it into existence.
As research, she traveled to pregnancy centers in Central Pennsylvania’s isolated coal towns and took tests because she wanted to see what the care was like. After one trip, she had a friend drop her off at a Greyhound bus stop and she took the same ride to New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal that Autumn and Skyler make in the film.
She met with social workers in New York in order to craft the titular intake questionnaire scene, which is how she met Kelly Chapman, a counselor at a clinic in Queens who made such an impression on Hittman that she cast her in the film.
“There were so many names going around for that role, like Leslie Jones,” Hittman says. “I think Julianne Moore was on a list. When we were thinking about that role, we were thinking about actresses who supported Planned Parenthood, like some sort of crossover. I just couldn’t make that kind of decision. I wrote the scene with Kelly’s voice in my head, and was like, ‘I’m just casting Kelly.’”
That particular scene provides a moment of catharsis for the audience. Each moment until that point is pulsing with danger. Where are the girls going to sleep? What happens when they have no money? Is that leering man going to hurt them? What about that man? Or that guy? And what are they going to have do in order to keep him happy?
“The tension is very much about watching these vulnerable women navigate a world that is aggressive towards them,” Hittman says. “I feel like so much of being a young woman is learning how to navigate all of this microaggression and deflect it. I think, ultimately, you become desensitized to it.”
Then, speaking not only about the characters in her film but more broadly, including her own experience, she says, “The journey of being a woman is fairly harrowing.”
She brings up her experience this year bringing Never Rarely Sometimes Always to Sundance as a tangential aside. She traveled there with Scott Cummings, her partner with whom she has a 5-year-old son. He’s a film editor and was in Park City to promote Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy, which he worked on.
At the airport terminal in Salt Lake City, a coterie of male producers spotted Cummings and began shouting congratulations to him about Wendy. “No one says anything to me,” she says. “It’s really depressing. I left every party being like, I said congratulations to so many people and nobody will even acknowledge I have a movie at the festival. I came home kind of preoccupied with it.”
She admits it’s hard to describe exactly how, but she feels like, “in a way, it’s an extension of the atmosphere of the movie.”
Of course, Hittman is a female director in Hollywood. It wasn’t the first time she felt something like that. She’s spoken before, for example, about her experience directing episodes of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.
“They hire a female director, but the whole crew is white men of a certain era that all worked together on The Wonder Years,” she told New York magazine, offering an anecdote about a fight scene that was outlandishly staged—more like a video game than how actual angry men fight. She pushed to tone it down, but ultimately was powerless and overruled. In the end, an actor snapped his foot in half.
It might seem surprising to those who have followed Hittman’s work that she worked on a teen drama like 13 Reasons Why. Each of her movies and could be ruled a “coming of age” story of sorts—she used the phrase “coming to consciousness” to describe Beach Rats—but their teenage characters aren’t packaged in the way that Hollywood typically explores youth, even in shows like 13 Reasons Why or Euphoria that deal with grittier themes.
“I always think of the movies as outtakes, like we’re showing all these moments that we wouldn’t see in other stories,” she says. “And have access to all these painful moments of shame and humiliation and desperation that I think are part of the human experience. They’re parts of ourselves that we don’t show or publicize, and it’s putting all of those moments on screen. I don’t think conventional narratives do that.”
Given her oeuvre’s preoccupation with the complications of young adulthood and sexual exploration, it’s natural to wonder what Hittman’s own upbringing was like. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, especially, invites audiences to consider what ideas about sex and abortion were imposed on them growing up, and the ways in which that was formative.
Hittman grew up mostly in Brooklyn. Her father was a cultural anthropologist and her mother was a social worker.
“I don’t think anyone ever talked to me about sex,” she says. She has a vivid memory of coming home for break from one of her first years attending Indiana University, where she had started dating someone. Her sister came into her room and said, “Mom wants you to use condoms.” That, she estimates, “was the extent of our conversation about my sexual health.”
She remembers in high school being aware of Planned Parenthood, having friends who went there when they were worried about STDs and things like that. “But I don’t know if I knew anyone who had an abortion until college,” she says. “I grew up in New York, so there’s just this sort of liberalism that you’re just used to. I don’t know if I realized the world was a conservative place until I went to college.”
Hittman is reluctant to call any of her films autobiographical, but there are elements of her characters’ experiences that she certainly has personal connections to. There’s a noticeable throughline of teenagers having absent parents, even when they’re physically there. In the middle of talking about her upbringing, Hittman has a sort of epiphany: “I never had parents who helped me navigate my own coming of age.”
When we reconnect on the day of Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ on-demand debut, Hittman is having a hard time articulating her complex feelings about the turbulence surrounding the release of this movie she worked so hard on and thinks could have real impact.
“It felt like it happened out of the blue,” she says, recounting the arrival of pandemic fears in New York. “I don’t know why. I think I was working so incredibly hard on the promotion of the film and also teaching and raising a child. There was so much on my plate that I feel like the pandemic just started closing in.”
“It’s been a foggy three weeks,” she says, but she’s grateful for some clarity now that the film is out in the world again. “I really just hope the word gets out and people get to see it.”