Abortion is a taboo in cinema, but not in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

Two teenage girls take a bus to New York. From their small town in Pennsylvania, they don’t travel to see a show or have fun. They arrange for one of them to have an abortion without her parents’ consent.

Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” has already become one of the most celebrated movies of the year. It won a Special Jury Prize when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won Second Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. He now plays in Los Angeles before expanding across the country.

It is Hittman’s third feature film, following the acclaimed low-budget dramas “It Felt Like Love” and “Beach Rats,” for which she won the Sundance Directing Award in 2017. Hittman’s style is something thing of thoughtful naturalism, shot in real locations and with invigorating performances from newcomers to the screen, in this case Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder.

“I’m aware that this is a small, independent film that might not reach an audience with views that don’t align with my politics,” Hittman said in a recent phone interview from New York, where she lives. “But at the same time, I think it’s an important film to add to the conversation. In an ideal world, people who oppose reproductive rights would know about the movie, but I don’t expect them to watch it. I expect them to protest, but I can’t see it yet.

Sidney Flanigan, left, and Talia Ryder star in ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’.

(Main Features)

In portraying a story that confronts one of the most controversial topics in contemporary American life, Hittman focuses on the specific difficulties of abortion access. After Autumn (Flanigan) realizes she’s pregnant and the only way to terminate the pregnancy without her parents finding out is to travel to New York, she hires her cousin Skylar (Ryder) to do the job. accompany. When they unexpectedly discover that the procedure will require them to spend the night, their journey becomes even more complicated financially, logistically and emotionally.

The film is an unusual release for Focus Features, the established art house arm of Universal Pictures. The company is known for high-end prestige images like last year’s “Downton Abbey” and “Harriet,” which makes the gritty neorealism of “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” all the more contrasting.

But this year, the company is releasing a slew of films directed by women and focusing on female-centric stories, like Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma,” Nisha Ganatra’s “The High Note,” and two films that premiered at alongside “Never Rarely” at Sundance: “Promising Young Woman” by Emerald Fennell and “Kajillionaire” by Miranda July.

“Our experience is that the more specific the voices, the better the audience experience and our ability to get the film out in a way that’s meaningful to people,” Focus chairman Peter Kujawski said of what happened. lured the company to Hittman’s project. “And it’s hard to think of American filmmakers who are more specific and more humanistic and more identifiable in terms of honesty in cinematic approach than what Eliza had done with her previous feature films. So in a certain way, it’s a very easy decision for us. And it felt very naturally like a Focus movie.

“Because it’s something they don’t usually release, I think that’s why they took it,” producer Sara Murphy said. “Knowing Eliza’s previous work, and like us falling in love with the script, I think they saw the potential of what the film could do and be and the noise it could make. It was really a thing wonderful to be able to launch at Sundance and Berlin with the distributor supporting it and helping us build the right campaign.

So far, there has been no significant outcry over the film, although the filmmakers are gearing up for its release.

“We’re not afraid it’ll be controversial,” Murphy said. “It’s a tough subject, especially in America today, like literally today. I think the hope is not to polarize or polemicize, but at least to incite dialogue. That’s what’s exciting about this movie.

“Although it was in the making for a long time with Eliza, when she kind of said the time was right, we moved pretty quickly to get it into production,” said award-winning producer Adele Romanski. an Oscar for “Moonlight”. “And I think it was an awareness of the cultural and political moment that we live in – which saddened us deeply, but also a call to action for us as to why we had to make the film. right now.”

The origins of the story date back to 2012, when Hittman heard of a woman in Ireland, Savita Halappanavar, who died after being denied an abortion due to complications in her pregnancy. Hittman began doing his own research on abortion access in the United States by visiting small town clinics and health care providers in Pennsylvania.

After Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, and while at Sundance with “Beach Rats” in 2017, she found herself drawn back into history.

“The press started asking me, ‘What’s your next movie?'” Hittman recalls. “And it kept coming out of my mouth that this was the next most important movie I could do.”

Sidney Flanigan, left, stars as Autumn and Talia Ryder as her cousin Skylar in "Never Rarely Sometimes Always."

Sidney Flanigan, left, stars as Autumn and Talia Ryder as her cousin Skylar in ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’.

(Angle Field/Focus Features)

A sequence in which the girls simply wait all night in New York’s Port Authority bus station with nowhere to go amplifies a growing sense of anxiety, as a viewer nervously waits for something terrible to happen to these vulnerable young women.

“This sequence in particular is like walking the line that women walk every day,” Romanski said. “There is a kind of very persistent, low-level threat from the outside world, a male-dominated threat, that we still have to deal with.”

During filming, novice Flanigan, now 21, was just trying to get by on camera. For the film’s central scene, which was shot in one extended take, Autumn answers a social worker’s questions with one of the four words that make up the film’s title. Flanigan conveys a deep store of emotions with waves of feeling overwhelming her.

“I thought I was going to feel extremely anxious afterwards, but I was a bit awkward,” Flanigan recalled of the intense scene. “I looked at Eliza and she was like, ‘That was great. Do you think we could do it again? And it was kind of cathartic and I was like, ‘I feel so good right now.’ Everywhere I went to create that moment and have to trigger something to have that moment in the scene, I ended up lifting a weight that never reconciled, in a way.

“The simplicity of the story was really what touched me the most,” said Ryder, a 17-year-old Broadway veteran who will also be seen in the upcoming “West Side Story.” “It’s the little moments in the movie, just the little things that everyone goes through, those day-to-day things, but they’re never really shown the way they are in the movie.”

Hittman is also a full-time professor at the Pratt Institute in New York. She took time off last spring to shoot the film, but was teaching during post-production and even continues as she promotes the film. Having also directed episodes of the TV shows “High Maintenance” and “13 Reasons Why”, she found that she preferred the intimate feeling of her own sets.

“I say [Focus] i can do anything you want [to promote the movie], I just have to teach on Wednesdays,” Hittman said. “It’s a lot, I’m not going to lie, but at the same time, the stability of the [teaching] work allowed me to do and invest a lot of time in more difficult projects. It gave me some creative freedom, in a way. I don’t know if the life of an episodic director is for me.

The film doesn’t concern itself with who the father of Autumn’s child is or many details about his background and situation. (Autumn’s mother is played by musician and actress Sharon Van Etten, who also features a new song, “Staring at a Mountain,” for the film’s ending.) Rather, by emphasizing the small realities of girls’ experience, Hittman has created an extremely raw, direct and powerful film.

“This is not a movie about choice or moral dilemma,” Hittman said. “It’s a matter of need.”

Helen D. Jessen