Teen odyssey

We talk to Never Rarely Sometimes Always director Eliza Hittman and star Sidney Flanigan about their quietly devastating drama

by Jamie Dunn

Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder as Autumn and Skylar in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Hittman: 'I wanted to explore the tension in the environment and to put the audience in the shoes of these young women and to feel the male gaze'
Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder as Autumn and Skylar in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Hittman: 'I wanted to explore the tension in the environment and to put the audience in the shoes of these young women and to feel the male gaze'
The road movie is so ingrained into the fabric of American cinema that most filmmakers hailing from the States take to the blacktop at some point in their career. Eliza Hittman is the latest to do so with her third feature, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which follows a teenager’s (Sidney Flanigan) harrowing journey from rural Pennsylvania to the bustling streets of Manhattan in her attempt to take control of her body and terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Hittman had the idea for working in this very American sub-genre back in 2012 after reading a news report from across the Atlantic about the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old who was refused a potentially life-saving abortion in Galway and subsequently died from septicaemia due to complications during the pregnancy.

Eliza Hittman with her Silver Bear in Berlin
Eliza Hittman with her Silver Bear in Berlin Photo: Courtesy of Berlinale
“I was very devastated by the story,” says Hittman when we meet her back in February at Berlin International Film Festival, where Never Rarely Sometimes Always won her the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize. “I went out and I bought a book called Ireland's hidden diaspora and I read about the journey that women would take from Ireland to London and back again in one day [to get an abortion]. And I thought that's a story worth exploring.”

Of course, not being an Irish filmmaker, Hittman didn’t think this specific story was hers to tell. “I was living in Brooklyn at the time, and I didn't think anyone would give me any money to make that movie. So I asked myself, What's the US equivalent of that narrative? And of course, so many women in the US travel from rural areas to urban areas to access reproductive care. So it was quite easy to adapt the concept of the movie to the US.”

She found some resistance to the idea back in 2012. Firstly, the subject matter didn’t exactly chime with the mood of the nation then. “It was the Obama era and there was a delusional sense of progress,” says Hittman. “Discussions about the challenges around access weren't in the public conversation.” And in general, financiers didn’t seem keen on making an “issue movie”. “I think people have really preconceived ideas about issue movies. So I had to express that it wasn’t an issue movie, it was a movie by me, and filtered through my eyes and my aesthetic and my worldview.”

Anyone who’s seen Hittman’s wonderful first two features should have a fair idea of what this entails. Expressive handheld photography, mostly in close-up, was the order of the day in 2013’s It Felt Like Love and 2017’s Beach Rats, blending social realism in terms of the milieu with a more dreamlike haziness connected to their teen protagonists. Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows suit. Hittman describes the film as a “poetic odyssey”, but adds that “it's also an everyday thriller, it's a procedural drama, and it has social realist aspects. So I think it kind of weaves together a lot of different things, it borrows from a lot of those different forms to try to create something new”.

Hittman sets her melancholy tone from the off, opening with 17-year-old Autumn (Flanigan) performing a plaintive cover of 60s pop song He's Got The Power! at her high-school talent show, its lyrics (“He makes me do things I don't want to do/He makes me say things I don’t wanna say /He's got the power, the power of love over me”) suggestive of male dominance and abuse before it’s even revealed that the teen is pregnant.

Autumn’s first port of call is the local women’s clinic, which turns out to be staffed by unqualified bible-thumpers pushing an anti-abortion agenda. Her GP’s office isn’t much better - it turns out she can’t get an abortion without parental consent. Her only option is to make for New York on the Greyhound bus, accompanied by Skylar (Talia Ryder), her cousin who’s the same age and with whom she works part-time at a local supermarket.

Much of this intimate drama relies on the quiet, often wordless interactions between Autumn and Skylar as they embark on their journey. Both actors are making their feature film debut and both are exceptional. Particularly impressive is Flanigan, who Hittman first met in 2012 when her partner was filming a short documentary about the fandom surrounding hip-hop group Insane Clown Posse (Flanigan’s boyfriend at the time was one such super fan).

Sidney Flanigan on playing Autumn:  'You just kind of reach into the very, very back of your mind where you have that lockbox of things you don't really ever want to think about and I said to myself, ‘Let's see what's in here’'
Sidney Flanigan on playing Autumn: 'You just kind of reach into the very, very back of your mind where you have that lockbox of things you don't really ever want to think about and I said to myself, ‘Let's see what's in here’'

“I wrote to Sidney about the movie in 2013,” recalls Hittman, “because I thought there was something very intriguing about her, but she never wrote me back.” After Beach Rats, Hittman picked up the project again and was struggling with finding the right lead. “I kept saying, I really want somebody who's kind of like this girl named Sidney, and I showed them pictures of her from Facebook. She's a musician, and she posted very teenage DIY videos of herself playing guitar in her bedroom, and they're very lonely, and they're very angry, and they're very authentically teenage.

“I’d watched these videos over the years, and watched her grow up a bit. So finally, at a critical moment of pulling the movie together, I still didn't have a leading lady, so I said, ‘We have to bring this girl to New York,’ and we contacted her on Facebook.”

When we sit down to meet Flanigan, the 21-year-old explains she was initially hesitant to take the role, but she was soon talked round. “I was talking to my bandmates at the time,” Flanigan tells us, “and they just said, 'What? You can do this. It's just, like, performing, so just give it a shot.' And so I did. And, yeah, I think acting goes hand in hand [with music] in a lot of ways.” There is certainly no shortage of rock and pop stars who’ve proven compelling screen presences. We ask Flanigan how the two performing arts overlap. “Sometimes with a song, you're finding where you're going to be in terms of the emotion in order to kind of deliver it, and I feel like it's the same thing with acting,” she suggests. “You know, you have to figure out the emotional headspace of the character in a scene in a certain moment and try to deliver a performance that’s truthful and aligned with that persona. So there's a lot of aspects that I feel are kind of the same.”

The way Flanigan describes the shoot, it sounds like it was easy to slip into her character’s headspace. “The movie was consistently on the go,” she recalls. “We were on a different location every day and that created this sort of exciting, but also kind of whirlwind of an experience. You could never really get settled into anywhere, which I think really helped with the characters. It certainly helped to tune into their exhaustion and restlessness.” She reckons the fact Never Rarely Sometimes Always was a woman-led set, including French cinematographer Hélène Louvart behind the camera, also bolstered her performance. “I mean, the presence of so many women, especially such really badass and awesome women was, you know, really empowering and cool.”

Hittman’s research was extensive, putting herself in the protagonist’s shoes. “I really tried to immerse myself in the journey and look at it through the eyes of the characters,” Hittman explains. “I went to Pennsylvania and stumbled upon these coal mining towns that are a bit abandoned and stuck in time. I was sort of very enchanted by these areas and just walked around.

“Then I took the Greyhound bus from a small town in Pennsylvania to Port Authority. I went to a lot of clinics, I went to Planned Parenthood in Manhattan. I went to other clinics that are not Planned Parenthood to get an outside perspective of private clinics. And I really sat and I talked with social workers, clinicians and providers.”

In these meetings, Hittman would play out scenarios. “I said, ‘If I was a minor, and I walked into your office, what would you do? What would your concerns be?’ And I really shaped the narrative off of the conversations that I had with these social workers.”

This research is there for all to see on screen, as we follow the logistical, bureaucratic, economic and emotional challenges Autumn faces as she tries to take control of her own body. As well as being fine-grained in its detail of Autumn’s quest to have an abortion, Never Rarely Always Sometimes also subtly explores the other ways in which women are oppressed and abused within our patriarchal society. Throughout the film, Autumn and Skylar are continually subject to unwanted male attention, ranging from the classmates who slut-shame Autumn in a restaurant to their handsy manager at the supermarket to the handsome hipster who insists on chatting up Skylar on the bus to New York, and refuses to take the hint that she’s not interested.

Autumn and Skylar in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Eliza Hittman: 'I think people have really preconceived ideas about issue movies. So I had to express that it wasn’t an issue movie, it was a movie by me, and filtered through my eyes and my aesthetic and my worldview'
Autumn and Skylar in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Eliza Hittman: 'I think people have really preconceived ideas about issue movies. So I had to express that it wasn’t an issue movie, it was a movie by me, and filtered through my eyes and my aesthetic and my worldview'

“I wanted to explore the tension in the environment and to put the audience in the shoes of these young women and to feel the male gaze,” explains Hittman, “and to feel that these two young women have this close bond and constantly throughout their day, there are men who try to come into their personal space uninvited. And I think that that's true to the experience of being a young woman.

“Of course, I didn't want to overly dramatise that experience. They’re just small microaggressions, like the way a man would feel comfortable to reach out and touch a woman he doesn't know, or just having general friendliness be misinterpreted for flirting. And they're just really small interactions that, over the course of your experience as a woman, you grow more and more aware of and more and more exhausted by.”

The film’s standout scene, from which it takes its title, sees Autumn presented with a series of statements relating to her home and sex life by a Planned Parenthood counsellor, in which she can respond with one of four words: never, rarely, sometimes or always. The powerful scene plays out almost entirely on Flanigan’s face, as she gives increasingly troubling answers.

“I remember going in, it was the first scene we did in the morning, and I was really tired and on edge,” recalls Flanigan of the scene in question. “Eliza had it set up so there were these two cameras on me, so it already felt kind of like I was under a microscope. So I already felt kind of vulnerable in that sense and that I just kind of went… I don't know, you just kind of reach into the very, very back of your mind where you have that lockbox of things you don't really ever want to think about and I said to myself, ‘Let's see what's in here’.”

Shooting the scene was emotionally draining, but watching it back proved cathartic for Flanigan. “There's something so interesting about being in this created moment and also being in my own moment, and feeling them together at the same time,” she recalls. “There's something about it that was actually really kind of profound, and afterwards... I just kind of felt alive in some weird way. I don't know how to explain it, it was really amazing.”

Flanigan’s experience of shooting that scene isn’t all that different from the experience audiences will have watching the film as a whole. It’s emotionally devastating, but as the credits roll the overwhelming feelings are not of suffering but of strength and solidarity. Life is tough for these young women, but they have each other, and that means they’re gonna be alright.

The film is available on digital platforms in the UK and US now

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