Earlier this month, before the coronavirus took over national headlines, abortion rights supporters and abortion opponents were closely monitoring a Supreme Court case that has the potential to change the landscape for womens’ reproductive rights in America. On March 5, the court heard oral arguments over a 2014 Louisiana law that makes admitting privileges at a nearby hospital a prerequisite for any doctor who performs abortions in one of the state’s three remaining clinics. A decision isn’t expected until later this year — although there could be additional delays now that the court has delayed oral arguments in all pending cases due to the coronavirus — but early indications are that Chief Justice John Roberts will provide the decisive vote in a Supreme Court that now seats two conservative-leaning justices appointed by President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, a handful of states, including Texas, Iowa, Ohio, Mississippi and Alabama, blocked abortions as non-essential medical procedures during the pandemic, prompting lawsuits from the ACLU and Planned Parenthood to some initial success, and setting up more potential showdowns that could be escalated to the high court.
That has many abortion-rights supporters concerned, including filmmaker Eliza Hittman. “I’m thinking about it a lot,” the writer-director confesses to Yahoo Entertainment. “There’s a lot of things I keep checking on my phone: coronavirus updates and Supreme Court updates.”
Hittman’s third feature, Never Rarely Sometimes Always — which will be available for digital rental on April 3 — deals directly with abortion access as it currently exists in America. When 17-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) learns that she’s pregnant, she discovers that her choices for what to do next are limited. The only clinic in her small Pennsylvania town is staffed by conservative Christian women who encourage her to have the baby, even going as far as to show her a graphic anti-abortion video. She’s also unable to ask her mother or new stepfather for help, as it’s heavily implied that he’s already been physically abusive towards her. With the help of her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), Autumn plans a covert trip to the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic — hours away in New York City. Arriving at the Port Authority bus terminal, the two teenagers are forced to navigate the streets and subways of Manhattan and Brooklyn on dwindling time and funds.
Hittman describes Autumn’s plight as the direct result of a battle that anti-abortion activists and politicians have been waging in the justice system since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. Rather than seek to overturn that landmark Supreme Court decision outright, the approach has been to chip away at womens’ reproductive rights through state-level laws like the Louisiana case that’s before the current Court. “We’ve been entrenched in this battle for the last 30 years, and that case is an extension of the same battle,” the director says. “Trying to demand that doctors have hospital admitting privileges, I think that’s totally unnecessary. How a doctor gains hospital privileges is another bureaucratic odyssey, and if a patient needs follow-up care from a hospital, there’s no hospital that’s going to turn them away just because the doctor doesn’t have privileges. It’s just another way to limit the number of clinics within a state.” Asked how she thinks the Supreme Court — and the two newest justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — will rule on the case, Hittman declines to speculate: “I just want to be hopeful.”
Meanwhile, those who have already seen Never Rarely Sometimes Always at various film festivals are hopeful that the rest of the country will be able to watch it. The film premiered at Sundance in January, where it picked up the Special Jury Award for Neo-Realism, before winning the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival the following month. On the strength of the festival reaction — and due to the timeliness of the subject matter — Universal’s specialty division, Focus Features, released Never Rarely Sometimes Always on March 13, planning a platform release throughout Women’s History Month. Unfortunately, the film’s theatrical window was shortened by the wave of coronavirus-related movie theater restrictions and closures. That’s why Focus chose to make Never Rarely Sometimes Always available digitally, joining other recently released Universal streaming titles like Emma and The Invisible Man.
When the film is more readily available, Hittman pointedly notes that it can be watched by both parents and teenagers thanks to the PG-13 rating. “We made a few adjustments to earn that rating, and it was a win for the movie,” she explains. “Autumn says ‘f***’ two more times in the original cut, and we took them out. I’m thrilled that the movie is going to play for young audiences; I feel like the demographic that needs it most are young women and conservative men. It’s funny that you could straddle those insanely different groups, but those are the people that need to watch the movie the most.”
For young women, the key takeaway from Never Rarely Sometimes Always is to ensure they understand what abortion access is like at a state and local level. While it’s generally well-known that many of the severest restrictions are located in the South and Southwest, it might surprise some viewers that women face difficult options in states like Pennsylvania. That’s one of the reasons why Hittman, who lives and works in New York City, chose that location. “I consulted with Planned Parenthood and social workers in New York, and asked, ‘Where are women coming from?’ I was trying to reflect the real journey that women take here and the real circumstances that cause them to flee. Someone from Alabama has other places they would go and wouldn’t come to New York — it felt unrealistic to me. So I was pretty dead set on Pennsylvania; I liked that it’s so close, and yet so far. It had to feel like a journey that the girls could make there and back in one day.”
Many of the current abortion restrictions also disproportionately affect women of color, and as a result they face some specific cultural and social challenges that aren’t necessarily depicted in Hittman’s film. While the director thought about incorporating that experience into her film in some way, she ultimately decided against it as a result of the criticism she received over her second film, Beach Rats, which centered around a closeted teenage boy in Brooklyn.
“There was blowback along the lines of ‘What right did I have to explore this male point of view?,’ and I didn’t want to contend with that type of criticism again,” Hittman explains. “And I do think that people of color need to be telling their own stories and reclaiming those narratives. In my research, I tried to focus on the specific story I was telling, because when I met with counselors, I heard a lot of stories and it was easy to get overwhelmed.” At the same time, she stresses that while individual stories might differ, the larger issue of roadblocks being thrown up in the way of women’s reproductive rights remains the same. “Women of color face many of the same obstacles in rural areas that Caucasian women face. It’s so much about the class of these characters.”
Meanwhile, conservative men — and men in general — would benefit from observing the fraught relationship between the heroines and Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), the city kid who takes a too obvious liking to Skylar. He demonstrates his interest in her through compliments and offers to hang out, at one point taking both Skylar and Autumn out for a date night of bowling and karaoke. (Well, it’s a date night to him; for them, it’s merely a place to rest until Autumn’s appointment at the clinic the next morning.) While that might sound innocuous, whenever Jasper is onscreen there’s a pervasive sense of relentless and menacing expectation, like a hunter stalking prey. “He’s a character that represents what it means to be pursued in this post-#MeToo climate,” Hittman confirms. “He thinks his behavior is romantic and charming, but he has no awareness of what the girls are going through. That’s the tension that plays out, and the audience is left wondering whether he’s crossing a line. To me, that’s what we’re discussing in this moment.”
In an ‘80s teen movie, Jasper would be the slightly dorky guy who the audience is expected to cheer on as he pursues the pretty high-school girl. But in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, his pursuit is largely seen for what it is: aggressive and unwelcome. Hittman says that those ‘80s movies were very much on her mind while making the film. “I love the article that Molly Ringwald wrote about revisiting The Breakfast Club, and realizing ‘Why did this tortured a**hole [Judd Nelson’s John Bender] win me over?’ His behavior is so inappropriate.”
An even worse offender in her eyes is Lloyd Dobler, John Cusack’s Say Anything slacker whose single-minded pursuit of Skye inspired an entire generation of hopeless romantics. For this generation, though, Lloyd could be seen as more zero than hero. “The most psychotic image [of the ‘80s] might be John Cusack standing outside Ione Skye’s bedroom with a giant boombox,” Hittman says. “Is that romantic? I don’t know! I don’t think so. Why do we empathize with these kinds of aggressive male characters and why are people onscreen empathizing with them? As someone who teaches film, I think younger moviegoers today are a lot more cued into the conversations we’re having about representation, and I was exploring the tension in that sort of male role in my film.”
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available to rent from digital services like iTunes starting April 3.
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