A critical hit that has been praised by audiences for its unvarnished look at abortion rights, Eliza Hittman’s drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” hit the Sundance festival last year after years of research and input from Planned Parenthood.
The film is one of the few American films to tackle abortion access head on in a straightforward manner, sloughing off overly emotional drama and divisive politics.
The idea for the film, which follows the journey of 17-year-old Autumn and her cousin Skylar from small-town upstate Pennsylvania to New York City in order for Autumn to get an abortion without parental consent, came to Hittman around 2012 when the story of Savita Halappanavar made international Headlines. Halappanavar, a 31-year-old doctor living in Ireland, died from septicemia, which she contracted after she was denied an abortion during a miscarriage. She wanted to explore the state of reproductive rights, which vary drastically from state to state.
“I guess as a filmmaker I’m always looking at the world. And looking for stories that I feel I hadn’t seen before,” Hittman, who wrote and directed the film, says. She was struck by Halappanavar’s story, thinking, who is denying this life-saving abortion and she asked herself how far would she have to travel to save her life?
She started researching reproductive rights and settled on developing her story of a teenager who must travel to New York to obtain one — and realized that it was a universal story.
“And the question was, could I make a film that was somewhat of a procedural film about how hard it is to get a legal abortion in the United States, because a lot of narratives focus on the back alley, illegal abortions, and I think that’s how this film pushes the needle forward,” she says.
Hittman turned to Caren Spruch, senior director of arts & entertainment engagement at Planned Parenthood, for help in research and accuracy. Spruch has worked on films such as “Obvious Child,” “Trainwreck,” “Unpregnant” and “Saint Frances,” and TV shows including “This Is Us” and “I May Destroy You.”
“Abortion has been under attack like never before over the past three years. For me, I knew the next thing I wanted to do and I started to talk to content creators about showing the restrictions,” she says. “So when Eliza came to me and it was at the early stages of this story, I was beyond ecstatic to get the opportunity to work with her … she is just so committed to getting it right.”
Indeed, Hittman actually shot in New York Planned Parenthood clinics, and it’s the gut-wrenching interview with Autumn and PP’s psychotherapist Kelly Chapman that gives the films its title.
Planned Parenthood has also worked with the film’s distributor, Focus Features, and its PR team to show the film to young people across the U.S. and organize Q&As with Hittman, and film’s extraordinary leads, Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder.
Hittman says she feels happy that the film is being recognized by the industry and an arthouse audience, “also I feel like I wanted to make something that could be used in an activist space.”
Their characters have very little dialogue with each other, but they communicate volumes through looks, touch, body language.
“I think on one level that abortion is so stigmatized and taboo, it’s really hard for women to just say, ‘oh I had an abortion, or I need an abortion.’ So we’re feeling that as part of their unspoken communication. But we’re also feeling their sisterhood and this sort of unspoken support that you get from friends or your peers or relatives that are also your age,” Hittman says.
This was Flanigan’s first film, and she’s racked up critics’ awards kudos, a Gotham Award nomination and an Indie Spirit Award.
“As I was reading characters, which are so real, I was just like, ‘wow, this seems like a really good story,’ and I watched [Hittman’s] other films and I just had this feeling that it was really amazing. And I saw it as an opportunity to challenge myself as an artist and be open to new things. So I’m just really glad that I took a chance on the project.”
Hittman says that she wanted the characters to be “determined without being overly precocious because, obviously, that’s a cliche. They’re just trying to figure it out the best they can.”