Stolen Youth: Eliza Hittman on ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Stolen Youth: Eliza Hittman on ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

Now streaming worldwide after a stilted theatrical release, Eliza Hittman’s latest film frames a teenage girl’s journey to get an abortion in an antagonistic environment that supports anything but. Caitlin Quinlan met the filmmaker to learn more. 

There’s a singularly harrowing scene in Eliza Hittman’s latest film that gives it its four word title. As a Autumn, 17 year-old young woman, sits in the office of a sexual health clinician, she is asked a series of questions about her history with sex, relationships, and abuse to which she can answer: never, rarely, sometimes, or always. Four simple, seemingly harmless words, become harsh signifiers of deep pain. 

Forsaking backstory for poignant musings on the trauma of a habitual environment, the male gaze, and systemic misogyny, Hittman’s film gently examines Autumn’s journey through a landscape that threatens young women at almost every turn.  I sat down with the filmmaker at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, prior to the film’s win of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize. 

Your film really commands respect and appreciation for its portrayal of the rage and trauma of being a woman. How do you respond to the film yourself?

I set out wanting to make a poetic odyssey. A film that captures the authenticity of what a minor in most states in America would have to go through to get an abortion, and this real journey that many women take. But I also wanted to capture the poetry of the journey, and that even though it is shrouded in pain and secrecy, it takes a certain individual to take that journey in the first place. I didn’t want to explore the backstory of the who and the how and the why, but I wanted to really bring the audience, both male and female, into the shoes of these young women who are navigating an atmosphere of misogyny and sexism. I guess in substituting the story of the father, I wanted the audience to understand the pervasiveness of the male gaze around them.

The way men still manage to take up so much space in the film, despite being pushed to the margins of your story, is very effective.

It was something that I was thinking about in this idea of substituting having an active antagonist. If you think about the movie as being a hero’s journey in a conventional sense, there’s always somebody trying to get in the way of the protagonist, and so without that person it was more of a test. Like, could I make the environment the antagonist? 

Your hero in this story, Autumn, was played by Sidney Flanigan who had never acted before.

Her first day acting was her first day on set. The first two days were a little nerve wracking for everybody. You know, the dailies start coming in… [whispers] “Is she gonna be able to do this? Are we gonna have to recast?” There’s a lot of people watching and everybody trusted me to take a huge risk and put the movie on her shoulders. 

She carries the film brilliantly, especially in the Manhattan clinic with the questionnaire – which feels so monumental. We spend the entirety of that scene just looking at her. 

There’s nothing to hide, there’s no cuts, there’s no looking away, it’s just you and her in that space. I really wanted to bring the audience into the perspective almost of the clinician and the social worker, as if you were sitting across the table from her. 

It made me think about The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open.

Yes, I saw that. The journey that these two women take over the course of a day, getting to know each other. 

And the long-take approach for that scene in the clinic to deny respite for the audience, and to grant a woman the freedom to be who she has to be in that moment. 

Exactly, and when are men ever in that office, being asked those questions? 

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Your films tackle heavy subject matter. How do you deal with this when shooting?

I’ve never made easy movies, and they do weigh on me in certain ways. I think with this one, it was the first time I could say I’d worked with a real person who had never acted before. All my other movies, the kids have had some acting experience, they’d been on student film sets and this is what they want to do. This was the first time that somebody was unsure of themselves. The challenge for me was bringing Sidney through the process of making a movie, and her happiness and comfort and safety gave me the biggest anxiety. 

What draws you to teenage stories?

I was originally working on this movie years ago, and I put it down and came back to it after Trump was elected. I was really feeling done with making movies about youth, I don’t know why, but then I just changed my mind and decided to make one more. 

I feel like they are the most vulnerable people in our country, and I wanted to make the movie for them. The truth is that plenty of mothers find themselves pregnant and can’t financially support more children and need access to reproductive care so there were other ways in which I could have explored this story. I thought maybe I should not make another movie about youth and I should explore another perspective. But I really felt like I wanted to make one more and make it for all of the young women in our country whose rights are under attack, so it’s for them. 


How do you approach working as both a writer and director?

For me, a lot of the directing happens in the writing and when I’m on set directing I’m not thinking about a script, it’s just in me. I’ve tried to direct other people’s things in the TV world, and I always feel a little lost, like I’m intruding on someone else’s world and like I don’t belong. I think I’m a self-generator and it gives me the confidence to be a director.

This film marks your second collaboration with cinematographer Hélène Louvart after Beach Rats. How did you work together to create the visual language for your film? 

There’s phases of the collaboration. It really begins with the script – we’ll have a conversation about the script and then I like to pull together a lot of image references from fine art, photography, painting, images I collect on Facebook that I’m stealing from different youth because I’m interested in the ways young people frame themselves. We look at those and try and think about the grammar of the film. It’ll take us about two weeks to make a preliminary shot list and I’ll talk through how I see every scene. It’s Helene’s job to find the pattern, like, “Oh we’re using steadicam throughout here, oh interesting we’re using steadicam in our operating rooms,” and she visualises everything that I download and organises it into a plan. 


The thing we enjoy most together is really walking through the world, because I’m so specific in the worlds that I choose and Hélène has such curiosity about that world. She never shows up with a “Been there, done that, seen that” attitude. She always arrives with such curiosity and wanting to get not only in my head but also to understand the world that I’m writing about. A lot of this film was just about being close to Sidney and that intimacy, and Hélène knows that I shoot very subjectively so the visual strategy between this movie and Beach Rats is actually quite similar. 

Both films feel like very focused character studies in difficult environments. 

Yes, the film is about staying close to Sidney, seeing what she sees in a wider shot, seeing her reaction. It’s all about creating a perceptual subjectivity. I’m much closer, and much more immediate and intimate than that. 

Caitlin Quinlan (@csaquinlan) is a film writer and Bechdel Test Fest team member from London. She regularly contributes to Little White Lies, Sight & Sound, and The Skinny.

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