Exposing the crushing bureaucracy women face when they assert autonomy over their bodies, Eliza Hittman’s new film tells the story of a woman crossing state lines to get an abortion. As part of our #CultureIsNotCancelled campaign, she tells us more
This article is published as part of our #CultureIsNotCancelled campaign:
On October 28, 2012, Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist living in Ireland, died from septicaemia after being refused an abortion by the University Hospital Galway. The week before, Halappanavar had begun experiencing acute pain as a result of her pregnancy; she was rushed to hospital by her husband but doctors refused to induce her, telling the couple that Ireland was “a Catholic country”. By Wednesday, the fetus’ heartbeat had stopped, Halappanavar’s organs began to fail and by Friday she had to be taken to intensive care. She died two days later. Precious Life, a group which campaigns against abortion, said its thoughts and prayers were with Halappanavar’s family.
When Berlin- and Sundance-award winning director Eliza Hittman read Halappanavar’s story she was astounded. “I immediately went online and ordered a book about Ireland’s abortion history,” says the filmmaker. “I started reading about women in Ireland who would take the ferry to London and back in a day for an abortion. I was reading about women in London who orchestrated support networks for women in Ireland.” Hittman was finishing her debut feature It Felt Like Love at the time, but these women’s stories struck a nerve: “I asked myself, why haven’t I seen this on film before?”
Soon after, the director became pregnant herself and realised that making a “road movie of sorts” about a woman’s journey to have an abortion was looking less and less likely given the amount of travel such a shoot would involve. She put the treatment to one side and began instead focusing on Beach Rats, a thoughtful, slow-burning study of sexuality, hyper-masculinity and homoerotic desire – “an idea that could literally be shot in my backyard”. Hittman took the film to Sundance for its premiere in early 2017, but while there her mind kept returning to her unfinished abortion script. “It was right after Trump’s inauguration,” the director remembers, “the absurdity and chaos and confusion of it all was in the air. I joined the Sundance women’s march on Main Street, it was so moving and so powerful. My son was on Harris Dickinson’s shoulders, chanting ‘Donald Trump is a bully’.” During press interviews for Beach Rats, people began to ask what she was working on next. “It was almost an intuitive reaction,” she says. “I have to make this movie.”
An intimate portrait of two teenage girls, Never Rarely Sometimes Always follows Autumn and Skylar as they travel from rural Pennsylvania across state lines to New York City after Autumn learns of her unintended pregnancy. It’s a quiet film that shares much of the same delicacy and cinematic detail as Beach Rats – Hittman isn’t one for grand gestures, sudden revelations or dramatic climaxes – but that doesn’t make the film any less powerful. Never Rarely Sometimes Always soberly and provocatively exposes the crushing bureaucracy women face when they try to assert autonomy over their own bodies. Balancing road movie, character study and a story of female friendship, the film is a beautiful, spare and melancholic catalogue of everyday obstacles that Autumn and Skylar must overcome to safely get an abortion.
An early scene sets the tone for the film. Suspicious of the changes that are happening to her body, Autumn visits a pregnancy crisis centre, the only obvious help available for girls like her in her small town. Details of the scene and some lines of dialogue are informed by Hittman’s own visits to such centres. “I went around Christmas time,” she recalls. “There was a Christmas tree, and a dolls house in the waiting room surrounded by donated gifts, toys and clothes.” Staff administered a pregnancy test, placed it to one side and began quizzing Hittman about her faith, whether she went to church and if she was “abortion-minded”. “They’re very upfront,” she says. “They handed me a gift bag filled with home made pamphlets about the father’s rights. That’s the exact same gift bag and leaflets Autumn is handed in the film.”
Autumn’s visits to Planned Parenthood share this same commitment to realism. While researching intake procedures at centres in New York, Hittman spoke with numerous social workers, among them Kelly Chapman. An employee at Queen’s Choices Women’s Medical Center at the time, Chapman told Hittman about the sometimes challenging realities of her job. “She was very open with me about her work,” remembers the director. “As I was writing the script the character became Kelly. I wrote with her voice in my head, she was on the page, even the character description was influenced by Kelly.” As they began casting, Hittman suggested Chapman as an obvious, if unorthodox suggestion for the role. “I had a hard time seeing anybody else,” she says. “I felt intuitively that it had to be somebody with real experience.” When she eventually approached Chapman with an offer, the counsellor was flattered if a little unsure at first. “Potential patients often look her up online, and she was concerned that being connected to the film might de-legitimise her career, [but] in the end she really embraced it.” Autumn’s eventual consultation and conversation with Chapman not only informs the film’s title, it becomes its emotional climax.
While it’s unequivocal in its message about reproductive rights, Hittman stresses she didn’t want Never Rarely Sometimes Always to be overly didactic – “that was my biggest fear,” she says. Instead, she hopes audiences will feel empathy for Autumn and Skylar. “It’s for middle-aged men, it’s for young women to see themselves in, but crucially it’s for their fathers to watch to understand why these issues are so important.”
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available digitally in the UK and Ireland from May 13, 2020 and will be available on VOD from May 27, 2020.