An Abortion Odyssey

Photo: 2020 Focus Features, LLC

Eliza Hittman is a filmmaker whose movies tackle taboos with equal (and unusual) amounts of care and confidence. Her first two dramas explored sex and sexuality from completely different perspectives: The first, It Felt Like Love (2013), dealt with a young woman’s troubling sexual awakening at the hands of older boys; several years later, Hittman released Beach Rats, which followed a Brooklyn teen’s existential crisis of sexuality. And with her new movie, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, she’s dealing with yet another fraught subject, but this time with a decidedly more political slant: access to abortion.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows two teenage girls from a rural, conservative town in Pennsylvania. When one of them, Autumn, played by newcomer Sidney Flanigan, becomes unintentionally pregnant, she and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) are forced to cross state lines so Autumn can terminate the pregnancy in New York City. The film chronicles the harrowing logistical challenges they face, or what Hittman described to Vulture as the “bureaucratic odyssey” of getting a legal abortion in America.

The film is squarely focused on the structural effects of patriarchy: how women must contend, often painfully, with the laws and prohibitions created by men in power. But it haunts the film on a more intimate level, too, as the girls encounter a series of aggressive, misogynistic men who harass and threaten them along their way.

The film’s other villain is bureaucracy itself, and the social and structural obstacles barring Autumn from terminating her pregnancy seem endless. First, she seeks help from a local pregnancy crisis center, which turns out to be anti-abortion center disguised as pregnancy “resource” clinic. After that, she’s forced to navigate a byzantine health-care system that has a catch at every step. Money is scarce, and familial support is virtually absent.

I spoke with Hittman and Flanigan in early March, a few weeks before New York issued its stay-at-home order to slow the spread of coronavirus, canceling the movie’s March 13 theatrical release. (It recently went straight to VOD, and can be rented for $19.99.) We discussed the film’s initial reception, Hittman’s inspiration for writing it, and what sorts of conversations she hopes to spur with its release.

When did the idea for Never Rarely Sometimes Always first come to you, and did it evolve over time? 

Eliza Hittman: I started thinking about the film in 2012. I was reading about the death of Savita Halappanavar in Ireland, a woman who passed away after being denied a lifesaving abortion, and the journey that women would take from Ireland [to access abortion in England] — across the Irish Sea to London and back in one day. I was thinking about all of the obstacles that they must face along the way. I wrote a treatment for a movie set in Ireland, and then I started thinking about how to transpose the story to the U.S. It was easy to do because of the lack of access in rural areas, and I started reading about New York as being a safe haven for women [seeking abortion].

Why make a movie about abortion now? Were you hoping to spur a particular conversation?

Hittman: All of my films explore taboos in different ways. [Abortion] was one that I was interested in — it’s such a sort of private taboo experience. I came back to the project and the research after Trump was elected because I did feel like the film would have a timeliness that it didn’t when I started pitching it in 2013. I hope it will give people a deeper understanding about the impact of trauma and the effects that state-to-state barriers [to abortion access] have on people’s lives.

Have you had any feedback from women who have had abortions, or Planned Parenthood employees?

Hittman: I consulted with Planned Parenthood a good deal on the movie and I shot in their facilities, so they read a couple drafts of the script. We went back and forth on things. Obviously I’m not making a documentary, and I can’t show the whole process. But we talked a lot about that, and how they manage patients who come in from out of town. So their point of view was instrumental in developing the movie.

Were there any films you watched or rewatched to prepare for making this? 

Hittman: There’s one movie called Four Months, Two Weeks, Three Days that’s about getting an illegal abortion at a time in Romania when it was very criminalized. It’s a masterful movie, but its point of view is very male. I think a lot of films are either trying to destigmatize abortion and normalize it, or it’s a back-alley evil abortion doctor movie. I was trying to explore just how hard it is to get a legal abortion.

Speaking of the male perspective, all the men in this movie were terrible. How deliberate was that choice on your part? 

Hittman: I wanted to explore a tension in the environment that exists for young women. I think that when you’re a young woman you begin to become aware of the ways in which men can make advances, and encroach upon your personal space and life. You begin to develop an awareness and defenses, and ultimately kind of become desensitized to it. But it’s a moment in these young women’s lives where they are becoming aware of this.

Sidney, this is your first film, and sort of a harrowing film for your debut. What drew you to the script? 

Sidney Flanigan: I remember reading it and thinking that I’ve never seen anyone really tackle this topic before and in this way — it didn’t feel cheesy or anything.

Had you been familiar with the logistical challenges of getting an abortion? 

Flanigan: I wasn’t aware of how far it went, because I grew up in New York State, where I’ve never had to worry about it to that extent. I didn’t realize in other states there’s things like parental-consent requirements, and how far some people needed to travel to get an abortion. And there are these federally funded “crisis pregnancy centers” — places that don’t have actual medical licensing — that create this kind of trap to sway women towards their [anti-abortion] agenda.

Did you draw on any of your own experiences for the role?

Flanigan: I’ve been to Planned Parenthoods for general testing and stuff like that, but there’s never been a time when there was, like, a protest outside. But I definitely had some pregnancy scares growing up — there are times where your periods are like a week late and you get all crazy in your head for a second. It’s just sort of like that universal fear and pain that women share. The universal fear of a right being taken away.

An Abortion Odyssey