Before writing her new movie, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” about the odyssey of a 17-year-old girl in present-day Pennsylvania seeking a legal abortion, the director Eliza Hittman embarked on a journey of her own. Hittman makes movies of quietly operatic intensity about vulnerable characters in unremarkable places. To find their narratives, she begins in the field, exploring prospective locations like a sculptor wandering a quarry.
Hittman, who is 40 and lives in Brooklyn, traveled by bus to a blue-collar town in Pennsylvania, where state law forbids minors from receiving an abortion without a parent’s consent. There, she toured so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which counsel against abortion regardless of circumstance, and posed as a woman who feared she might be pregnant and needed advice.
In the movie, available on-demand Friday, a girl named Autumn (the newcomer Sidney Flanigan), lives Hittman’s experiment in reverse. Fleeing the ambient hostility of her hometown, she and a cousin (Talia Ryder) get on a bus bound for New York City, where they encounter a series of obstacles and villains — a byzantine health care system, the casual misogyny of strange men — that are more devastating because their banality rings true.
It’s also the rare movie about abortion rights that doesn’t litigate their morality, choosing instead to focus on the social and structural forces that would subvert a young woman’s will.
“I don’t think the film is persuasively trying to change anyone’s mind,” Hittman said, in an in-person interview last month before state-mandated isolation orders in New York. “It’s just asking you to walk in another person’s shoes.”
“Never Rarely,” a New York Times Critic’s Pick that won prizes at the Berlin and Sundance film festivals earlier this year, was briefly released in theaters on March 13, the week before most major exhibitors shuttered their doors in response to the pandemic. The film’s backers, including the U.S. distributor Focus Features, hope that by sending the film to paid video on demand early — an approach used by previous 2020 releases from Focus parent Universal and others — it will reach some would-be theatrical viewers.
“We’re never going to be able to get our original rollout back,” said Adele Romanski, a producer of the film. “But there was an opportunity to take some of that momentum and be at the forefront of this new frontier of cinema.”
“We’ve been lucky that the film was already reviewed and recognized as something special,” Hittman said. “I’m optimistic that it will find an audience no matter what.”
Along with Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” about a love affair in 18th-century France, and Alex Thompson’s “Saint Frances,” about a 30-something waitress re-evaluating her life, “Never Rarely” is one of a handful of movies this year to portray abortion through a feminist lens.
All but “Saint Frances” were directed by women, part of a recent uptick in the number of working female directors in the industry overall. Though still a small minority compared with men, last year nearly 11 percent of the top-grossing movies in Hollywood were directed by women, compared with just 4.5 percent in 2018, according to research by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
Hittman was first inspired to write her film after learning the story of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman living in Ireland who died during a miscarriage in 2012 after her request for an emergency abortion was denied under constitutional law. (The law was repealed in a referendum in 2018.)
At the time, the director had just finished her first feature, “It Felt Like Love” (2013), a nervy character study about the sexual awakening of a 14-year-old girl in working-class Brooklyn. She had visions of a story in a similar vein about a pregnant teenager’s harrowing journey, but struggled to find financial backing.
“There wasn’t that much interest in the idea then,” Hittman said. “People didn’t think it was relevant.”
She continued working on the script while she made another film, “Beach Rats” (2017), which earned her the directing prize at Sundance and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In the meantime, the political landscape — and the appetites of studios — changed dramatically.
Hittman was at Sundance with “Beach Rats” in January 2017 when she decided the time for “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” had come.
“I had attended the Women’s March at Sundance and there was just all this chaos in the air around the country,” she said. “I knew that this was the story that I needed to tell.”