Her Dark Materials

With Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman takes on the ‘bureaucratic odyssey’ of getting an abortion in the U.S.

Eliza Hittman. Photo: Philip Montgomery
Eliza Hittman. Photo: Philip Montgomery

About halfway through Eliza Hittman’s third feature, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, comes an almost overwhelmingly intimate and excruciating scene. Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan), 17, sits on an exam table in a nondescript room at a New York Planned Parenthood; she has covertly traveled there from rural Pennsylvania with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. As Autumn tries to conceal her fear, a counselor calmly performs a pre-abortion interview. “I want to spend a few minutes talking with you about your relationships,” says the counselor. “All you have to do is answer ‘Never,’ ‘Rarely,’ ‘Sometimes,’ or ‘Always.’ ” Hittman’s camera trains on Autumn, who up until now has been a fortress against any sort of attention — because for most of her short and seemingly painful life, it has been of the unwanted male variety. As the counselor asks whether her partner has ever hurt her, or whether he’s ever forced her to have sex, the young girl’s face breaks like a wave.

It’s a stunning moment in a stunning film and one of the reasons Hittman and I are sitting on a sofa in a hotel in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival, where Never Rarely Sometimes Always premiered to rapturous reviews. The film is Hittman’s third in a decade — preceded by the similarly dark, teen-centric dramas It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats — and it feels like a breakthrough, the one title on nearly every critic’s lips at the festival. (It was also awarded the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival.)

And success has come on her own terms. Much of her work is, as she’s the first to admit, rather bleak. To come of age in an Eliza Hittman movie is to become disillusioned with the world. Her characters, often cast from the streets of New York, are not the gleefully raunchy teens of Riverdale or the molly-popping mini-adults of Euphoria, or the telegenic depressives of 13 Reasons Why (for which she directed some episodes). Rather, they’re in varying degrees of crisis. Their parents are sick, dead, or emotionally absent. Sex is almost always inextricable from danger. The dialogue in her films is spare, the camera more interested in the movement of bodies. “I always think of my films as being like outtakes from other teen movies, showing these private moments that aren’t exposed in more conventional narratives,” she says.

In keeping with her understated films and the quiet teenagers that populate them, Hittman (who refers to her style as “gestural”) seems uncomfortable with the attention that comes with widespread acclaim. Over the course of our two interviews, the second of which takes place in early February at a coffeehouse in Chinatown, she utters the phrase “I don’t know” more than 60 times. “I feel like I’m being psychoanalyzed,” she says when I ask about recurring themes in her films, which feel unambiguously personal and iterative. I wonder aloud if she doesn’t like thinking too hard about these connections. “I know,” she says, further curling up her already petite frame as she glances idly at her phone.

But maybe that reticence is also one of the keys to why her films feel so intimate and honest. “She’s an observer,” says Madeline Weinstein, who co-stars in 2017’s Beach Rats. “She is much quieter than any director I’ve ever worked with in film or theater. She feels very birdlike to me: She has a keen, sharp eye. She is seeing everything.” Flanigan echoes the sentiment: “Eliza is a little mysterious in a way. It’s kind of part of her charm,” she says, laughing. “I can tell that she’s paying attention and she’s taking it all in, but she doesn’t say too much back.”

For her part, Hittman says she spends “a lot of time in parks just observing interactions. I’m a bit of a spy.” She doesn’t try to imitate the way teenagers really talk, but she does try to imitate the way they move and touch — the stories they unwittingly tell with their bodies but won’t speak about aloud. Narratively speaking, very little actually happens in her films, and when something does, the effect is jarring by design. Hittman’s first two features and an early short are all set in her native coastal Brooklyn, where even the beach is menacing, the sun’s incessant glare as threatening as a police-interrogation lamp. The camerawork is purposefully disorienting, eschewing establishing shots for shaky, claustrophobic close-ups.

The rotten fruits of toxic masculinity also hang over every scene. When I ask Hittman why there are rarely any good men in her movies, she laughs. “Sorry, guys,” she says. “There’s a tension that you discover as a young woman that exists in the environment. You feel it when you walk home at night. You feel it in strange ways, wherever you are. You don’t invent it in your mind. It exists.”

Hittman is reluctant to share too much about why she keeps returning to sex and violence and adolescent despair. “I think it’s painful to be a human being,” she says. “I think that feeling will always be part of what I do, regardless of whether it’s about a 19-year-old kid who’s grappling with his sexual identity or a 17-year-old in Pennsylvania who’s alone with her body.” When I ask if the omnipresent pain and loneliness were at all influenced by her own coming of age or those of people she knew, Hittman sighs, fiddling with the bandanna tied around her neck. “Maybe,” she says. “It’s a long time ago.”

Hittman, 40, is the daughter of a cultural-anthropologist father and a social-worker mother. As a child, she spent time with her dad doing fieldwork on a Nevada reservation. “I watched him document a language and really immerse himself in a tribe called the Northern Paiutes,” she says. “Something about that process sort of translated to me to filmmaking.” Her mother created and supervised art-therapy classes at an outpatient mental-health clinic in Cobble Hill. Occasionally, Hittman says, “she’d bring home artwork from patients who had committed suicide.” Maybe that’s why Hittman “was always intrigued with psychology and why people do fucked-up things.” Her mother also struggled with recurrent breast and ovarian cancer throughout Hittman’s youth. “I grew up in a house that was filled with illness, that reeked of illness,” she says. “It pushed my father into some crazy places, I think.” She doesn’t elaborate.

Hittman escaped by moving into her family’s basement and immersing herself in the theater program at Midwood’s Edward R. Murrow High School. “I was at school until 11 p.m., always in a rehearsal or production,” she says. “Even if I wasn’t happy at home, I had this community. I feel like I’m doing the same thing now that I did since the age of 11.”

After graduating from Indiana University, Hittman dreamed of directing experimental theater but found few opportunities for women directors in early-aughts New York. She recalls meeting with a play director “that I had a huge amount of admiration for” and asking for advice. “He said something to me that I’ll never forget: ‘You’re always gonna struggle as a five-foot-tall woman.’ It was kind of a complicated statement because, on the one hand, he seemed to be empathizing with me, but, on the other hand, he seemed to be putting the responsibility on me.”

Hittman hadn’t been much of a cinephile growing up, but she recalls feeling inspired after stumbling upon a series of student films from Columbia University in her mid-20s. “I had this little voice go off in my head like, I can do that,” she says. She applied and got into CalArts, where she met Scott Cummings, her now-partner, who edits all of her films and with whom she has a 5-year-old son.

Hittman’s not sure where the confidence to make films came from, but she made her first feature, It Felt Like Love, in 2013, right after graduation. It follows the fraught sexual awakening of Lila (Gina Piersanti), a lonely, motherless teenager in Gravesend who obsessively pursues an older boy and quickly finds herself in over her head. In one scene, Lila, who’s desperate to seem blasé about sex she hasn’t yet had, affects detachment while watching porn with some men. “I’ve thought about doing that as a career,” she says, as the boys laugh at her. “The hours are good and so is the pay, and I like sex a lot.” The film features a climactic scene that involves a potential sexual assault.

Hittman says It Felt Like Love is the most “emotionally autobiographical” of her three films. “That character is maybe closest to me at that age — the pain of realizing that you’re undesirable,” she says. “I never did what she does, but some of those experiences are loosely threaded through me. But very fictionalized.” She emphasizes the last part, she explains, because in the past, her family has gotten upset with her. “There’s been historical conflict in my family about me making work that’s too close to our lives, and it’s something we bump up against,” she says. “They see themselves, and they feel a little exposed.”

Beach Rats (2017) diverges sharply from Hittman’s own experience but is still concerned with another sort of masculine threat namely, the sort that a confused teenage boy presents to himself and the people who make themselves vulnerable to him. Harris Dickinson plays Frankie, a Coney Island teen who dates women but privately sleeps with older men he meets online. Frankie’s father is dying in a hospital bed upstairs as Frankie hides out in his basement and in the shadows of the beach at night, performing an aggressive type of heterosexuality while inwardly torturing himself for his true desires. You can practically taste the acrid sweat dripping off his brow and off the dozens of sculpted male bodies that populate the film — a choice that Hittman says she made to balance the universal scales.

It Felt Like Love was very much about the female gaze, and understanding Lila’s own body in relation to other bodies, and the male body. And in Beach Rats, it was much more about the tension and desire — Frankie’s repressed gaze,” she explains. Both films include scenes of full-frontal male nudity in order to, as Hittman puts it, “celebrate it. To normalize it. To document it … I try to avoid looking at women the way we conventionally look at women.”

Some critics have called her male-body-centric filmmaking style “voyeuristic,” which Hittman doesn’t disagree with. “I think turning the camera on anybody could be interpreted as voyeuristic. As human beings, we’re always looking at people’s bodies and trying to conceal it. In my films, we’re not concealing that.”

Though quite acclaimed, these movies didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Between low-budget features, Hittman took a teaching position at Pratt and directed a few TV episodes of High Maintenance and 13 Reasons Why. The former was a positive experience, but the latter was one of the first times the play director’s prophecy came true. “They hire a female director, but the whole crew is white men of a certain era that all worked together on The Wonder Years,” Hittman says. She recalls one day on the 13 Reasons set when she had to film a fight scene. “The fight choreographer went out and staged a fight with two stuntpeople and sent me a video back,” she says. “And I said, ‘It looks fake. It looks like a video game. This is not how two angry men fight.’ I tried to tone down the fight, and I lost the battle in toning down the fight. And on the first take, one actor snapped his foot in half. That’s an example of how powerless I felt.”

On her own sets, Hittman creates what her actors describe as a warm, intimate, and collaborative energy. She works with the same people over and over again, and trusts two the most: her cinematographer Hélène Louvart, and her partner Cummings, who edits the films for “tone and rhythm and emotion.” Louvart, who’s shot more than 100 films, says Hittman isn’t like any other director she’s worked with, and that the two have a sort of ineffable mind-meld. “Eliza is very sensitive, clever, and precise. [Other people] speak about a general feeling, but we don’t go so deep as with Eliza. She trusts me. And if I make some mistakes, it’s okay. And if she makes a mistake or has some doubts, it’s okay. She doesn’t judge me, and I never judge her.”

Never Rarely Sometimes Always grapples most explicitly with the notion of patriarchal dominance and violence and the way it seeps into every facet of society. As Autumn and Skylar travel to New York, sleep inside Port Authority, and try to find money for Autumn’s abortion, they encounter a series of men, young and old, who impinge on and harass and frighten them in a variety of ways. Back in Pennsylvania, it’s never made clear how Autumn became pregnant, or who’s abusing her, but there are several men in her life who are quietly presented as possibilities: her stepfather, who’s cruel to her in front of her mother and calls their dog “a little slut”; a boy at school who taunts her and ends up getting a pitcher of ice water to the face. Hittman didn’t want to reveal anything further. “They’re all threatening in different ways, and that was what was important to me,” she says. “How the threat of male attention can weigh down your experiences.”

Hittman came up with the idea for the film back in 2013, after reading an article about an Irishwoman, Savita Halappanavar, who died in a Galway hospital after being denied a lifesaving abortion. “I began to wonder, Where would this woman have had to travel? Where would she have had to go to save her own life?,” says Hittman. But she soon became pregnant herself and “felt a little bit uncomfortable” writing an abortion movie while carrying her own child. When she attended the Women’s March after Trump’s election, she felt newly inspired to write something about the “bureaucratic odyssey” of obtaining an abortion in America.

Before writing the script, Hittman traveled the route: visiting a crisis-pregnancy center in rural Pennsylvania, where, like Autumn, she was bombarded with pro-life propaganda; taking the bus to Penn Station; and visiting a Queens clinic, where she met Kelly Chapman, who ended up playing the abortion counselor in the film. Hittman was struck by Chapman’s take on the lesser-known aspects of the abortion process. “She said, ‘The abortion is never the crisis. It’s always the mystery of what’s going on at home that I, as a counselor, can’t totally fix in the 20 minutes I spend with these women before they have their abortions,’ ” says Hittman. “That stuck with me.”

The most crucial piece of the puzzle for Hittman was casting Autumn — someone who felt real and grounded but was willing to go to seriously dark places onscreen. She immediately thought of Flanigan, whom she’d met at a backyard wedding in the mid-aughts while helping her partner film a short documentary about Juggalos. “She was sitting off to the side and had this quiet tension,” says Hittman. Ever the spy, the director began watching Facebook videos Flanigan posted of herself singing and playing the guitar. “She had this anger that she was working through in her music,” says Hittman. She reached out to Flanigan, then 14, about appearing in an early version of Never Rarely, but the girl never replied — because she was grounded. “I wasn’t supposed to have my phone, but I had an old phone I was using Wi-Fi with so that I could still text my friends,” says Flanigan. “And I was just like, ‘There’s no way my mom will let me do this.’ So I just didn’t even bother.”

Flash forward to 2018, when Hittman tried her one more time after a frustrating casting search. This time, she accepted the offer, and the two spent a day doing an unconventional “audition” all over the city, with Hittman and Louvart filming Flanigan doing things like picking out pastries at a Chinatown bakery and buying a MetroCard. “It was clear, even though she hadn’t acted before, she was an artist,” says Hittman. “Hélène would say to me, ‘I’ve worked with Isabelle Huppert, and Sidney is much better.’”

Despite their lack of experience, both Flanigan and her co-star Ryder have been wildly praised for their performances in the film. This should all be cause for excitement, but, true to form, Hittman seems fundamentally incapable of enjoying her own work. She says she’s trapped in the clutches of anxiety from the moment she starts writing until the end of the press cycle, not sleeping, barely eating, and “catastrophizing” constantly, a state of mind she says gets worse with each successive film.

Still, she’s already thinking about her next feature —  she’s ready to leave the teens behind. The film will be about “a family that’s middle class that is incapable of making final decisions about the matriarch, who’s in her late 90s,” she says. “They somehow haven’t emotionally prepared themselves for the end.” Hittman too will need to emotionally prepare before filming begins. “Making things is always challenging, and I take risks in doing it,” she says. “I take on dark, challenging material that I live with for a long time.”

*This article appears in the March 2, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Her Dark Materials