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Interview: Eliza Hittman on the Poetic Odyssey of Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Never Rarely Sometimes Always breaks new ground for Hittman as a filmmaker.

Marshall Shaffer

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Eliza Hittman
Photo: Angal Field/Focus Features

The level of vivid detail with which writer-director Eliza Hittman renders the procedural elements of procuring an abortion in Never Rarely Sometimes Always might stand out as the film’s most obvious point of discussion. A teenager’s journey to assert her bodily autonomy spans from a “crisis pregnancy center” in rural Pennsylvania meant to trick women out of terminating a pregnancy to the halls of a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan, illuminating structural biases and barriers along the way. But a focus primarily on what happens in Never Rarely Sometimes Always overlooks aspects of Hittman’s filmmaking that prevent the film from seeming like a sermon, or agenda-driven.

Don’t call Never Rarely Sometimes Always a neorealistic film, Hittman told me during a recent conversation, in spite of what the title of the special prize she received at this year’s Sundance Film Festival might suggest. As in her prior two features, It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, Hittman both effectively dramatizes and stylizes the interior struggles of teenage characters forced to define their sense of self and sexuality in an unforgiving society.

But even as Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) takes on a relentless series of bureaucratic challenges, struggling to receive the medical care she seeks without parental permission, she can at least rely on the steadying presence of her cousin and confidant, Skylar (Talia Ryder). Their empathetic relationship operates on such a deep level of understanding that Skylar requires no protestation or persuasion to accompany Autumn on the journey. In the film, Hittman proves as adept at translating these ethereal and non-verbal moments of sororal support into grace notes as she does chunks of dialogue full of legal and medical jargon.

I interviewed Hittman the week of the film’s opening in New York. Our conversation covered how Never Rarely Sometimes Always expands and explores some of her previously evinced fascinations while also breaking new ground for her as a filmmaker.

Your films all have such distinct opening scenes, usually revolving around some measure of kind of performance for an audience or for the camera. How are you developing these first touch points that the audience has with the characters?

They’re all very different, I think. With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, I really wanted to playfully disorient the audience about the period of the movie.

That was successful. I was like, wait, what’s going on here?

And as a kid, I used to do all these really cheesy ‘50s talent shows. And it’s this moment in time that we romanticize, and the music is all saccharine about the myth of romantic love. Things that I’m interested in challenging. I thought it would be an interesting way to bring in the audience into the themes and the worlds. Set it in high school, because none of it really takes place in a high school. Introduce the character instantly as somebody who is in opposition to the feelings of the moment.

Aren’t the lyrics of the song Autumn sings “he makes me” or something like that?

“He makes me do things I don’t want to do.” It’s an Exciters song from the ‘60s.

Your films put on display this dichotomy between how teenagers conduct themselves in public versus how they do so in private. You’ve discussed watching them and developing your observations from an anthropological lens. How have you sharpened your instincts to tell whenever they’re performing and when they’re being authentic?

I think my goal, primarily, is to bring audiences into these private and painful moments. I’m giving this perspective about what they’re thinking and feeling lonely and isolated. I don’t know if Autumn is performing so well in public. We can feel her discomfort in the world and the weight of what she’s going through. It’s more than Harris’s character [Frankie, the closeted male protagonist of Beach Rats] performing masculinity. I don’t think that Sydney’s character is performing femininity as much in the world. She’s hiding herself. She’s wearing these clothes that hide her body. In a way, she’s pushing against showing her body and herself.

Your films capture the solitude of being young. It’s so crucial to that period of your life, but it’s very tough to render on screen. How are you taking this space for your characters to deal with their feelings from the concept or the script to the screen?

I think that there’s a lot of threads that the film juggles. You know, one is the sort of painful moment alone, you know, where she’s trying to terminate her own pregnancy. But it’s also about the friendship and the procedural aspect of what she’s going through.

Sidney Flanagan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sidney Flanagan in a scene from Never Rarely Sometimes Always. @ Angal Field/Focus Features

And how do you go about bringing all that to life?

Originally, when I wrote the treatment for the film in 2013, it was actually just trauma. And I felt like that didn’t work. So, I knew that the narrative wouldn’t be successful if it was just her alone. It’s about her alone in the most vulnerable places in the story, like the procedure, navigating these adult situations and clinics by herself. Her cousin never has perspective on these things. So, I was just interested in [the fact that] even though she has somebody on that journey with her, she’s still very much alone with the burden of the pregnancy.

The way that you shoot a lot of those scenes with those really tight close-ups puts us right there with her.

They’re all subjective. The visual strategy is all subjective. And it’s about proximity and aligning the audience with what she’s thinking and feeling. It’s not just optically. So, the camera lingers close to her and then is wider on other people because it represents her distance and her keeping people from a distance. That’s all shaped on the page that way to conceptualize in the shot list that way.

Like the scene from which Never Rarely Sometimes Always derives its title, you also shot a scene from It Felt Like Love where the protagonist talks with her doctor about emergency contraception in a single unbroken close-up. As a man, I don’t pretend to understand what that moment feels like, so would you mind elaborating on why you’ve chosen to portray this moment in such a way?

The other one is definitely part of a building block to know what happens. The one in It Felt Like Love is different because she’s never had sex. So, she’s going through the discomfort of this kind of sexual history questionnaire. But she’s very innocent, and that’s the tension of the scene. But yeah, there’s a long take in it, so it has a similar shooting strategy. I think that scene was, in a way, the basis for the scene in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. I think it’s important that men watching it are never in those rooms. And they’re never asked those questions. And I think when men watch the scene, they always talk about it as being really invasive, and women watch it and talk about it as being really empathetic. Men are always, like [switches into a macho voice], “the scene is so invasive.”

Invasive in a good way, or invasive in a bad way?

In a really uncomfortable way. Whereas women are more accustomed to that sort of medical, clinical interrogation.

You mentioned starting Never Rarely Sometimes Always with the head fake that it might be a high school movie. The film also somewhat belongs to another genre, the New York movie. We see stories all the time about young people who come to the city to get what they want, and it’s usually some kind of magical or transformative experience for them. And in some ways, this kind of is that, because she comes here and gets what she wants, but it doesn’t feel particularly inspiring.

No, it’s not a sentimental or romantic look at New York. Her experience here is almost liminal, and she’s in liminal spaces. Wherever she’s in Port Authority, on the train, on the subway, she never has a moment to get comfortable or really take anything in.

Were you aware of and engaging with those tropes?

I was aware of them. I think New York is a really hard place to visit. And I don’t think people from out of town necessarily love it. I don’t think there’s anything intuitive about the way that it’s organized. And I don’t think it appeals to everybody.

The scene where Autumn emerges from Port Authority and kind of comes to the edges of Time Square was so striking because that’s a space that’s usually shot in such a fun way. But this is the actual experience going to Times Square. It’s terrifying.

Yeah, with that scene in particular, I wanted to show how disorienting it can be.

Your films put faces to a lot of things that we often engage with primarily on a conceptual level: toxic masculinity, homophobia, and the pro-birth extremism as shown by the crisis pregnancy centers. How do you go about personifying these things without turning them into caricature?

I mean, I think some men are a bit grumpy about the representation of men in the movie. But I think, for me, I was really trying to explore the tension that exists as a young woman, between you and an environment full of men. You learn to navigate their advances and how you can deflect…and ultimately become desensitized to it. I tried to find the balance between all of those male characters in their moments and glimpses; that part of the story is maybe a little bit conceptual. With the women in the crisis center in Pennsylvania, I went and met those women and took that test. Because I was concerned there about Christian caricatures. I’m just trying to do the best job that I can do and not make them things that I’ve seen before.

I don’t need to tell you we’re in a scary time with the Supreme Court even just last week, hearing this Louisiana case that could potentially imperil Roe v. Wade. What is the impact that you hope to have with this movie right now?

I think that the film is effective in putting a face to somebody who might otherwise be faceless and just a statistic and giving a voice to voiceless in a way. And I hope that the film helps people see the deep impact that these barriers have on lives. It’s a real impact. I think with documentary, and even in the research of this film, it’s harder to find because of confidentiality. You know, it’s hard to find people who really speak up about these issues.

With the freedoms of fictional filmmaking, too, and not having to be quite so married to the actuality or the reality, you can probe more deeply.

I didn’t want to be didactic. I really wanted to explore it from the point of view of a character study, and a poetic odyssey, a movie about friendship, and it’s not just about the issue. I hope that the story for people is layered and dimensional, not overly political or message-driven.

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