The Realism of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Explained

CS_055_0190521 Sidney Flanigan stars as Autumn in NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

Eliza Hittman is undoubtedly amongst the finest indie filmmakers of our time despite being only 3 feature films old. Her latest endeavour, ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ is the career-best effort from the director. The film offers a hauntingly real yet compassionate portrayal of sisterhood and access to abortion in the United States. Not only is the film relevant because of the current state of women’s reproductive rights. But it also effectively subverts the gaze and delves into the everyday struggles of young women in the country.

‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ follows two teenage girls from rural Pennsylvania who embark on a journey to New York following an unplanned pregnancy. The film centers around Autumn, a 17-year old girl who finds herself pregnant, and her cousin Skylar, as they make a trip to Brooklyn in order to look for an abortion clinic.

Hittman is best-known for her portrayal of hardships faced by disillusioned blue-collared teens in New York. This is a recurrent theme in all three of her films including ‘Beach Rats‘ and ‘It Felt Like Love’. Another recurrent theme in her work, including this one, is her poignant exploration of sexuality. There is a sense of dangerous vulnerability in the way she portrays her characters, all of which are rooted in the reality of our times.

Through ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’, Hittman offers a series of delicate observations, from the intimacy shared between the two sisters, to their vulnerability and anxieties in the big city. All of which is dealt with a sense of subtlety and naturalism, focusing on girls’ silences and understated emotions. One can’t help but notice the everyday reality of our times in Autumn and Skylar’s journey. In case you’re wondering what inspired the film, here’s everything you need to know.

Is ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Based on a True Story?

To answer it simply, no, ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ is not based on a true story. However, it is deeply rooted in the reality of our times, and has several real-life inspirations. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2020, where it was awarded a Special Jury Award for Neo-Realism. Not only is the film a culmination of the struggles of various women, it also makes use of several neorealism elements, including non-professional actors and filming on location.

Hittman’s Inspirations

According to Eliza Hittman, the primary inspiration behind ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ was a real-life tragedy that took place in Ireland in 2012. Hittman began writing the script for the film after hearing about Savita Halappanavar‘s case. Halappanavar was 31-year-old Indian living in Ireland who died of septic miscarriage after she was denied a life-saving abortion from the medical staff of University Hospital Galway.

Her tragic death led to massive protests against the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act 1983, under which, abortion was prohibited in Ireland in almost all cases. This was followed by the passing of the Thirty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution.

It was while reading about Halappanavar’s case that Hittman began to read about various women who travelled from Ireland to London to access safe and legal abortion. This made her think how far women had to travel to save their own lives. She, then, decided to explore the dilemma in the context of America’s current state of women’s reproductive rights, along with the bureaucracy of the nation’s complex healthcare system.

Hittman was also partly motivated by Cristian Mungiu’s ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’, that follows a somewhat similar premise of two college students seeking an illegal abortion. The film explores Communist Romania and takes place during the final years of Nicolae Ceaușescu who had enacted the abortion law.

While Hittman deeply admired the film, it was its flaws that inspired her portray Autumn’s and Skylar’s characters with a sense of compassion and empathy. She did not appreciate Mungiu treatment of the pregnant character who is shamed for her pregnancy. This thought is what she went back to while writing her characters.

Neo-Realism in ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’

The setting ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ becomes extremely relevant in the context of the film due to the current abortion laws in Pennsylvania. According to these, a person can only get a legal abortion when the person’s parent or legal guardian signs a consent form. New York on the other hand does not have this requirement. Hittman, for the film, travelled to rural Pennsylvania, and visited several abortion clinics. She even boarded the bus from Pennsylvania to New York at the time she was still working on the film.

Hittman spoke to several social workers and abortion clinics in New York, to learn more about their encounters. It was around one of these times that Hittman met Kelly Chapman, a social worker trained at Planned Parenthood who worked at a clinic called Choices. In the film, Autumn, played by Sidney Flanigan, interacts with Chapman during, what is undoubtedly the most iconic scene film. This scene also lends the film its title, which is based on a questionnaire that women seeking abortion need to answer.

It is also important to note that the film features several non-actors, including Flanigan. Apart from these, the film was also shot on location, and even featured a real-life, unscripted event. The anti-abortion protest featured in one of the scenes was a real protest taking place around Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn.

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