“I want to spend a few minutes talking with you about your relationships okay? Because they can affect your health. Did you know that? “
I can sit through tough subject matter. As long as it is well-made, I will end up exhilarated on the other end. Conversely, I have sat through some comedies that are so bad that I get depressed for days. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (2020) is a gut punch – but it’s indispensable viewing. Its subject and the way its director, Eliza Hittman, handles it is electrifying. In its power, it reminded me of Francois Truffaut’s “400 Blows” (1959). Without getting sentimental, this coming of age story contrasts the vulnerability, honesty and sheer courage of this young lady and the obtuseness of the system and adults that control her life. This is not a film about a teenager trying to get an abortion, it is a portrait of young women that are preyed upon, abused – and are in need for us to take notice and help. Premiering at this past year’s Sundance Film Festival, Hittman’s feature has been deservedly garnering recognition and end of the year nominations.
Its title comes from the questions that a social worker has to ask 17-year-old Autumn about her past sexual activity. “They can be really personal,” she warns “and all you have to do is answer ‘never,’ ‘rarely,’ ‘sometimes,’ or ‘always.’” In a tightly framed close up, we watch her responses to a few easy questions that she has no problem answering. Then she’s asked hard-hitting questions: Has your partner threatened or frightened you? Has your partner ever hit you or slapped you? Is someone hurting you? Has anyone forced you into a sexual act ever in your lifetime? This scene is one of the most impressive in cinema this year. Her answers do not reveal specifics but at the same time, oceans of information. The caseworker comforts her, “I want to make sure you’re safe.”
Autumn lives in Northumberland county, Pennsylvania, and she’s pregnant. Unable to turn to her mother and stepfather, she goes to a local clinic on her own where she’s shocked to find out that the self-administering test is the same one that she could have bought at a drug store. She’s given a sonogram and is told she’s ten weeks along. “And this is the most magical sound you will ever hear,” says the nurse as the camera pans across Autumn’s face turning away from the monitor.
The film opens with a talent show at the local high school – and we see traditional acts performing. Then it’s Autumn’s turn and her song of choice is forceful and quite telling. She sings “He’s Got the Power” by the Exciters. “He makes me do things I don’t want to do, makes me say things I don’t want to say, and though I try to break away I know I can’t…He’s got the power of love over me,” she sings. She gets heckled by a boy in the auditorium but composes herself and finishes the song. Later at a pizza joint, her stepfather cannot bring himself to say anything to her. “It’s hard to compliment someone who’s always in a foul mood,” he states.
The only support she gets is from her cousin Skylar. Both teenagers work as cashiers at a supermarket. Although there’s not much verbal communication between them, there’s a strong bond. Skylar is protective of Autumn – and sticks up for her with their boss. It is she who accompanies Autumn to New York City where there’s no need for parental approval to terminate a pregnancy. On their surreal journey, there are hitches. She is further along that she was previously informed and the procedure in Manhattan will take two days. The two young ladies will fend for themselves with little money – riding subways and sleeping in the Port Authority Terminal – hauling a big symbolic suitcase.
Hittman lets us observe this simple yet complex story with a very naturalistic eye. There are some extraordinarily lyrical touches. The color scheme is cool colors – predominantly blue. At the first procedure – Autumn meets a kind social worker named Kelly who offers to hold her hand. Later on, when Skylar finds herself having to kiss a boy to get enough money to take the bus back, Hittmman blocks her behind a column – and Autumn reaches from behind to hold her hand as well. When they go to a karaoke bar, Autumn poignantly chooses to sing “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” by Gerry and the Pacemakers…“The night-time shadows disappear /And with them go all your tears / For the morning will bring joy / For every girl and boy / So don’t let the sun catch you cryin’.”
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is in my top ten list of 2020.
Skylar: “Don’t you just wish you were a dude?”
Available to stream on crave+, HBO NOW, HBO MAX and HBO via Prime Video.
Available to rent on FandangoNOW, Google Play, YouTube, Microsoft and CINEPLEX.
Written and Directed by Eliza Hittman
Starring Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin, Ryan Eggold and Sharon Van Etten
Writer/Director Eliza Hittman Bringing “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” to the Screen
She initially started working on the story back in 2012, when she read about the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 28-year-old woman living in Ireland who died of sepsis during a miscarriage; she was denied a potentially life-saving termination because of Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortions. “I tried to educate myself [about the Irish situation],” Hittman explains, who wrote a short treatment for a film about abortion set in Ireland. “But at the time I was making such small-scale features, I didn’t think anyone would get behind me making a feature in Ireland.” By 2017 and 2018, several things were happening that would change the shape of her passion project. Ireland voted to remove the ban on abortion in 2018; at the same time, women’s reproductive rights were being further threatened in several US states after Donald Trump’s election. Additionally, Hittman also found partners who believed she was ready to move to a larger filmmaking canvas, after her first two acclaimed low-budget features, “It Felt Like Love” (2013) and “Beach Rats” (2017). “Tragically it became so easy to translate it to the States,” she says of the script, which follows 17-year-old Autumn from western Pennsylvania. Seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy, she travels with her cousin Skylar to New York City where she can get a legal termination. Executive producer Rose Garnett had liked Hittman’s first two features, and sought out a meeting when the filmmaker was attending the 2017 BFI London Film Festival with “Beach Rats.” “I met her first as a fan,” remembers Garnett of the October 2017 meeting, just a few months after she had taken her new post as head of BBC Films. “Eliza’s work is so authored. She knew the tone and stories she wanted to put in the world. Her films are about lives you don’t meet very often, told with such complex straightforwardness, making these lives look beautiful without romanticising them.”
That conversation ended with Hittman talking about some ideas for future projects. When she mentioned the abortion story, it struck a nerve with Garnett, who was especially keen to champion female stories and female filmmakers. While BBC Films usually backs UK filmmakers, or at least projects with strong UK elements, in this instance Garnett was keen to widen the scope. “Cinema is global and the stories we want to tell are global. The BBC is a global organisation,” says Garnett. “This story felt so insistent, so important, so relevant to all young women, no matter their nationality.” Pastel, the US production company formed by Barry Jenkins, Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy and Mark Ceryak, had collectively been fans of Hittman’s since her first feature. They also jumped into the project early, with Romanski and Murphy as producers and Jenkins as executive producer. Romanski recalls, “We were aware of the idea just from being friends and peers with her. But it was really in response to the last US election cycle that it came back into the forefront of her mind that this was incredibly necessary and relevant. We were only too eager to jump in and support her.” Murphy concedes that it was not an easy project to finance – “an abortion drama with no movie stars… But we quite quickly found amazing partners. Because of Eliza’s track record, people were very eager to see what she wanted to do next. People were very moved by the script.” Tango Entertainment, Mutressa Movies, and Cinereach came on board at script stage, and then just as pre-production was starting Focus Features joined the project. “That was a blessing to have a distributor on board from the beginning,” Murphy adds. Hittman finished the script in late 2018, having done research over the years speaking to young women who had lived through similar experiences, and visiting abortion clinics and pro-life pregnancy centers. Working on a production budget of less than $5m, the team wanted to move forward quickly. As Romanski says, “Eliza wanted the film out going into this 2020 election cycle.” (screendaily.com)
Casting “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
Hittman knew the story she wanted to tell, and finding the right young women to bring it to life was crucial. Sidney Flanigan, a young actress and musician from Buffalo, New York, makes her feature acting debut in the film as the pregnant Autumn. Hittman’s longtime editor (and partner) Scott Cummings first met Flanigan back in 2012 researching a film about underground culture. Cummings and Hittman stayed in touch with Flanigan over social media over the years, and she was in Hittman’s mind even while she was auditioning 100 more established actresses for the role. “Her Facebook posts really took me back to being a teenager,” Hittman recalls. “She would post about boys she was dating and how much they meant to hear, then it was about heartbreak, and she would post videos of herself performing cover songs. I connected those emotions with the film I was writing.” “I knew she had screen presence,” Hittman continues. “She had a natural ability to understand the progression of the scenes emotionally, so I never felt like I was taking a risk on her talent or ability, it was more a question of whether or not she would enjoy it. The character is in a dark emotional space for so much of the film and that’s not how Sidney is as a person.”
The role of Skylar went to Buffalo-born, New York City-based Talia Ryder, who had more acting experience – she had appeared in Broadway’s “Matilda,” for instance, and will also star in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “West Side Story.” “She adjusted very easily to a quieter performance. I think she has a big presence as a dancer. But she’s also very natural,” says Hittman. With only two days of rehearsal together before the shoot, Hittman’s priority was helping her two leads get to know each other. The director left them alone in her apartment while they shared personal stories, prompted by questions Hittman had written for them in notebooks. “I will never know what was in those notebooks,” she says. “It was crucial for them to have a deep understanding of each other, as young women in the world. That connection needed to be real. And I believe that the bond on screen is the bond of their friendship.” Romanski says casting a film that relies so much on performance is never certain. “It’s always risky, you never know until you shoot how it will be, especially with kids but even with seasoned professionals. Eliza was so confident and the test footage she had done with both of them was very strong. We leaned into supporting Eliza on that.” In terms of other cast, some of the healthcare and support workers seen in the film are played by real workers to add to the film’s authenticity. The devastating scene that gives the film its title, for instance, sees a social worker named Kelly play a version of herself. (screendaily.com)
Actor Sidney Flanigan on Being Cast as Autumn
“I was about 14 years old. Eliza’s partner, Scott Cummings, was making a film in Buffalo, called Buffalo Juggalos. And he was mainly filming at this house in South Buffalo, where I grew up. Where all these juggalo people lived. I was seeing someone at the time who was crashing at this house, and I would be there, hanging out. I was kind of on the fringes, because they were filming there a lot. I wasn’t in it, but I was there. And there was a backyard wedding there, one day, at this house, and Eliza was there, and I guess she spotted me and thought I was really, (laughs), really in over my head. She and Scott followed me on Facebook over the years, and they would watch the videos I posted of me playing music. And they reached out to me to audition for this film last year. At first I was kind of hesitant because I had never acted before, hadn’t considered it. But after talking to Eliza and reading the script, I was really drawn to how powerful the story was. I consulted with my friends and family, and they all told me I should go for it and give it a shot. She said, when they were casting, she kept telling her producers and stuff, “We’re kind of looking for someone like this girl, Sidney.” And they were all just, like, “Well, none of these girls are Sidney.” And she was like, “You know what? I’m just gonna get Sidney.” I think, yeah, she did have me in mind to some extent. It’s very strange to me, because she’s a person who, all these years, I didn’t realize was watching me!” (screenrant.com)
The Making and Collaboration of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”
Hittman’s eye for talent is rooted in her own experience: She started as a theater geek at Edward R. Murrow High School (famed alumni include Darren Aronofsky and Marisa Tomei). At Indiana University, she continued studying drama. But in grad school at the California Institute of the Arts, she shifted her focus to film. It was also at Cal Arts where she met someone who became an essential part of her personal and professional crew: her editor, and son’s father, Scott Cummings. He’s cut all three of her features, including “It Felt Like Love,” which debuted at Sundance in 2013. This dynamic supports Hittman’s creative process. “It’s an intimate space where you’re alone with the footage,” she says, “a reflective time full of processing the shoot’s intensity. There’s something nice to go through the pain and agony of embracing the movie I shot. He fills that space with a positive and reassuring energy.” For “Never Rarely,” Hittman collaborated with Planned Parenthood. She shot in actual clinics to “capture those spaces for audiences, [particularly] male audiences that have never been there…. I’m not showy with spaces, either. I’m not shooting a wide shot to show off the value of it. I want the audience to experience them, and move through them, with the characters.” Manhattan’s Margaret Sanger Health Center housed the pivotal presurgical interview that inspired the film’s title. Hittman prepped by settling Flanigan in a private space by herself before they shot—a luxury on an indie location. At nearly 10 pages, the scene was the script’s longest. While Flanigan had her lines memorized, “At this moment,” recalls Hittman, “she was worried about the scene’s length and doing it in one take.” Hittman told her star to “forget about the character’s answers at the scene’s beginning,” instead advising her to respond as if talking about her own family. Then, from a certain point, the actress would follow the script. “Something about that bit of direction started Sidney in such a personal mindset that it pushed her to go deeper,” says the director.
French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, another “Beach Rats” alum, shot the scene with two tight cameras, interrogation-style. “They were very close to her. She knew we weren’t going to cut. And there’s more risk. It’s more thrilling when you shoot in 16mm in long takes.” Opting for Kodak 16mm underscored the intimacy and discomfort. “Film documents human emotion in a way that digital can’t,” Hittman says. “For example, in this scene you see her face change colors just so subtly.” It’s this kind of visual strategy that ties her films together. “It’s about staying close to the protagonist, the proximity between lens and lead,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ve ever shot a master shot. I don’t shoot in a standardized way.” If intimacy and urgency define Hittman’s style, just don’t label her aesthetic “neorealist,” a term that was bandied about by the jury at Sundance. “In retrospect,” she says, “my concern was that they were setting the film’s style as somehow dated, or an homage, not something that was incredibly timely and urgent.” In the director’s feature debut, “It Felt Like Love,” Lila (Gina Piersanti) experiences “the pain of feeling undesirable and trying to compensate by forcing herself into sexual situations.” “Beach Rats” exposes the pain of living a double life; gay teen Frankie (Dickinson) copes with internalized homophobia while forcing himself to perform in hypermasculine spaces. And, as for Never Rarely’s Autumn, she’s alone with the burden of her pregnancy. “All of those experiences explore emotional taboos around shame and humiliation,” says Hittman. “They reflect a truth about what we carry with us as we navigate the world.” That vulnerability haunts Hittman even as she breaks through and attracts accolades: “I never walk away from a film shoot like I nailed that. I always feel like I blew it.” (dga.org)
About Writer and Director Eliza Hittman
Eliza Hittman is an Indiana University alumna and award-winning filmmaker, born and based in New York City…After attending IU for undergraduate studies, Hittman received an MFA from California Institute of the Arts, School of Film/Video. In 2011, Hittman’s short film “Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight” was included in Indiewire’s list of “the Best of the Best” at Sundance. In 2013, her debut feature film “It Felt Like Love” was voted one of the top 10 films at Sundance by Film Comment’s Laura Kern. Also that year, Hittman was listed as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” and nominated as the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director and for the John Cassavetes Spirit Award. She has also been a guest director on HBO’s “High Maintenance.”…(cinema.indiana.edu)…Her film “Beach Rats” premiered in the US Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where she won the Directing Award. It premiered internationally at Locarno in the Golden Leopard Competition and was the Centerpiece Film at New Directors / New Films. “Beach Rats” was released domestically by NEON Rated, and was a New York Times Critics’ Pick. It was the winner of the Artios Award for Outstanding Achievement in Casting, Outstanding Screenwriting in a U.S. Feature at Outfest, and the London Critics’ Circle Film Award for Young British/Irish Performer of the Year. In 2018, it was nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Male Lead at the Independent Spirit awards and a Breakthrough Actor Award for the Gothams Awards. She is an Assistant Professor of Film/Video at Pratt Institute…and the recipient of the Emerging Artist Award from Lincoln Center, and a Garbó NYC Feature Film Grant from Rooftop Films. Fellowships include “Women at Sundance” and Cinereach. She has been profiled in the New York Times and Village Voice. (gf.org) Her most recent film is “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” which was released in 2020.