Eliza Hittman on Her Sundance-Bound Teen Abortion Tale ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Eliza Hittman Director
Courtesy of Victoria Stevens

Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” follows Autumn, a 17-year-old girl in rural Pennsylvania, who is pregnant and desperate to get an abortion. A minor in a state that requires parental consent, she embarks on a dangerous journey into New York City, accompanied by her cousin, to find a clinic where she can have the procedure done. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will debut at this year’s Sundance fest on Jan. 24 with a fierce sense of urgency, arriving in a presidential election year that could determine the makeup of the Supreme Court and with it a woman’s right to choose. Focus Features will release the film theatrically on March 13, at the height of primary season.

Despite that backdrop, Hittman says she doesn’t expect to change many attitudes around a polarizing issue. She was more interested in capturing the human drama — the fear and anguish of a young woman facing a monumental decision without a strong network of support. She wanted to immerse viewers in blue-collar communities, several freeway stops from major urban areas, which aren’t always depicted on film. She also wanted to avoid making a polemic. Hittman sees the movie as forming part of a loose trilogy with her previous works, “Beach Rats” and “It Felt Like Love,” which also examine teenagers grappling with emotional traumas. 

Can you explain the title?

While I was doing research, I met with social workers. They told me a little bit about how they would interact with a minor who came from out of town and what their concerns would be. They would want to make sure they were safe and to determine whether consent was involved in the pregnancy. They found that asking yes or no was not successful, because it didn’t give people an opportunity to talk about what was going on. So instead, they do this interpersonal violence test where they ask questions that can be answered with the words in the title. It made me think about how complicated it is to decide under what circumstances women should be permitted to have access to abortions. So, for me, it spoke to the larger issue, but it also spoke to this character and her crisis.

When I watched this movie, I kept getting irritated by how many questions Autumn gets asked by social workers and doctors about her decision. It felt needlessly invasive.

They’re questions that men never get asked in the course of their lives, and they’re questions that women are asked every gynecological appointment from the age of 15. 

How did you come up with the idea for the movie?

I first started thinking about the film in October of 2012 as I was editing “It Felt Like Love.” I was reading the news, and a woman in Galway, Ireland, died after being denied a lifesaving abortion. She had a septic miscarriage. Her death stunned me. I went out and bought a book called “Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora: The Abortion Trail,” and started reading all about the journey that Irish women would take to London in one day. I thought about how far these women had to travel and the burden of that. It seemed like a movie I hadn’t seen. I wrote two treatments. One was set in Ireland and the second was about people coming to New York. I followed them as they were grappling with all of these issues while they were navigating a city that they’d never been to.

Several years passed since you started mulling the project. What made you come back to this story?

I was at Sundance, where “Beach Rats” was premiering, and I was standing in the Women’s March over the inauguration of Trump and I just was inspired. It felt like the right moment to come back to the idea. 

Your movies deal with tough subject matter — homo­phobia, teenage sexuality, abortion. They’re not very commercial. Is it hard to get funding?

They’re not commercial. Every movie has its own challenges. I was very clear on this one that I wanted to cast non-actors. That filters into what the market value of a movie is. We’re very lucky to have a distributor in Focus who knew that and was still willing to give us a theatrical release. 

Would you ever make a big studio movie?

I would consider it. I don’t know what that is. It has to be the right movie for me. It’s a new decade, and I want to try new things.

Sidney Flanigan is a revelation in this film as Autumn. Has she acted before?

Her first day acting was her first day filming. But I wrote it with her in mind. I met her when she was 14 in South Buffalo. My partner, Scott Cummings, who is also an experimental filmmaker, was making a film about Juggalos [a subculture built around a love of hardcore hip-hop]. Sidney was at this very debaucherous backyard wedding. She was dating a guy there, and I felt immediately she was in over her head. She was an aspiring musician, and I followed her Facebook page, and she posted videos for years. I thought they were compelling because they captured a teenage point of view. Sidney just seemed like a real person. It was a massive risk. But when I met her, I knew there was a real story inside her that would leak out in the production, and it did. 

It’s a meaty role. There must have been more experienced actors who were interested in the project.

Everybody auditioned for it. I thought Sidney would bring something that no one else could. There were a lot of really talented young actresses who came in and read for the role, but I felt like if I made a very polished version of this movie with some actress you recognized, it would be a different movie. It would maybe push into the propaganda zone where it’s a glossy movie with some Hollywood starlets. I didn’t think it would work. 

What would the glossy version of this story be? Would it have been more of an “issue movie”? It is an issue movie, but it’s also a character study. It’s about a woman’s journey. The glossy version of the movie wasn’t telling that story. I wanted to push the audience into an unfamiliar world, and sometimes casting can work against that. 

There’s not a lot of dialogue in the movie. Was that a conscious choice to strip that away? Yes, always. Part of the writing process for me is to pare down and push things to be told through behavior and images rather than dialogue. 

When I saw this movie, I couldn’t help thinking about “Obvious Child,” which premiered at Sundance in 2014 in a much different political atmosphere and presented a comic take. Six years later, with the potential for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, the climate feels so different. 

The intention of that film is different. It’s to show a low-key, destigmatized abortion. It’s not about barriers. For me, the movies that I like are all about the barriers and obstacles that human beings face.

Do you hope this movie will change minds about whether or not abortion should be legal?

I don’t know if the film will have that impact. People around this issue tend to be stuck in their perspective. I don’t know if they’ll even watch it.