Zooming with the star of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the quietly devastating look at obtaining abortion across state lines by the director of Beach Rats
There are points in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman’s long-awaited follow-up to Beach Rats releasing digitally today, that are so immediately recognisable, so sympathetic to my own experience, that I could feel them on my skin. This is because, other than being the story of a teenage girl’s quest to get an abortion – in a Trumpian America where obtaining abortions is becoming more and more difficult, or impossible, in many states – it’s also a deeply-felt chronicle of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways men enact pressure onto young women everyday, invading their space and their safety.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is a teen pregnancy drama where you don’t know who the father is, there’s no tearful reveal to parents, and in which the process of onscreen abortion doesn’t only hinge on the moral dilemma of whether she should, or whether she shouldn’t. Sidney Flanigan, who has never acted before, plays Autumn – who, when she finds out she is pregnant, has to cross state lines from rural Pennysylvania with her cousin Skylar (Dazed 100 nominee Talia Ryder) into New York to access the procedure. Taking place in the unglamorous bus terminals, subway cars, lobbies, and medical clinics that they have to traverse on their own, the film’s piercing emotional revelations come through against a constant feeling of the girls’ exhaustion, who are so tired they barely speak to one another throughout. The film’s title is the best indication of its nuanced emotional landscape: named after the multiple-choice options in the questionnaire you fill out with a counsellor before the procedure, it’s a choice that speaks to Hittman’s refusal to give the viewer black-and-white solutions.
Flanigan’s performance centres it all, managing to convey, often without words, both a deep sorrow and a quiet determination to take back control from those who would have her just give up. A musician who first crossed paths with Hittman when she was only 14, when the latter’s partner Scott Cummings was filming Buffalo Juggalos about the local subculture in her hometown, Flanigan had to be asked several times to even consider auditioning for the role. “At first, I kind of told them like ‘I’m not really an actor’... and like, ‘I’m so busy here with my minimum wage job, and my band’,” she laughs when we catch up over a Zoom call, with her cat skulking in the background. Now, she couldn’t be more proud that she took the part on. “I’m definitely not the same person I was before I went there, and shot this movie,” she says. “I’m so glad I got to be a part of something that’s not only an artistic project, but intertwined with something important to me – something that’s at my core. I feel really good about that.”
The first time we see Autumn she’s singing with her guitar on stage at a school talent show. Was that aspect of Autumn being musical part of the script already, or did you inspire it?
Sidney Flanigan: It was actually already in the script. I think it was probably helpful that I already played.
What’s the vibe of your music? Is it as mournful and soulful as her singing and playing style in the movie?
Sidney Flanigan: I mean, the original of the very first song I play (The Exciters – “He’s Got the Power”) is so different, because it’s from the 60s and it’s very upbeat. So I just gave it my own kind of folk twist, you know, and I really liked the way it came out because it’s so haunting. And I really was so excited to get to do that karaoke scene later on, because I love that song (Gerry and the Pacemakers – “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”) so much. I used to listen to it when I was in high school all the time. There were three options, and I saw that one and I was like, “It has to be that one. I love that song”. (laughs)
Other than what’s hinted by her love of singing, we don’t know that much about Autumn. She’s not fleshed out with all these details of her interests, in the way that teen-girl protagonists often are. What’s behind that?
Sidney Flanigan: We do really only know her under the event of this crisis. We only see her very circumstantially, and the most we really know is that she plays music. In that way, I think it will be easier for more young women to imprint themselves onto her – or identify with her character and with her story. It’s easier to identify with somebody that isn’t so incredibly fleshed out since the very beginning, you know? Because it’s less about Autumn and more about her journey.
Yes – you have to confront the difficulties of that journey as if you were there and going through it. Similarly, I feel that the classic thing with pregnant teenagers in films is like, “Oh, mum, I’m pregnant,” and the mum being like, “Oh, no!” There’s all that interaction with the parents, but in this film, there’s not that.
Sidney Flanigan: Yeah, I really admired Eliza’s choice to not have that family drama aspect. I think that’s what makes this film so unique – it really focuses on just the barriers, rather than on giving space to the moral dilemma. I think that’s what could make it look like more of an issue movie, rather than a personal story. I just really like that.
When she is in it, it’s cool to have Sharon Van Etten as your mum, though.
Sidney Flanigan: She’s great. Before I even got to meet her, Eliza sent me some of her music and I was just like, “Oh my god, I love this, how did I not know about her?” Now I listen to her all the time, and I’m so excited that I got to work with her now. It’s so cool.
“It’s easier to identify with somebody that isn’t so incredibly fleshed out since the very beginning, you know? Because it's less about Autumn and more about her journey” – Sidney Flanigan
Once you’re in New York, so much of this movie takes place in Port Authority, or the subway, and you’re just wandering around with Talia. It must be difficult to film in these public-private spaces, right?
Sidney Flanigan: The Port Authority days were really interesting because we could shoot from 12am to 4am, so we got like a four-hour window on the nights that we were allowed to shoot there. It was really (a) hard out at 4am. It was kind of insanity filming there. It was definitely a lot of commotion, trying to navigate the city, because in New York there are so many people everywhere all the time. I don’t know what (shooting in a studio is) like since I’ve never done it, so I don’t really have anything for comparison. But it was definitely wild, trying to navigate all the people around you, but it worked sometimes – because having them all there would give you that kind of anxiety that your character was experiencing. So I’d say they added to that. (laughs)
I do think it’s interesting how Theodore’s character (Jasper, a boy who meets them on the coach into the city and is interested in Skylar), in a quieter way, is a big takeaway from the film. That whole encounter. It’s (not) so easily definable somehow, how that might make you feel watching that. What do you think that’s sort of saying in the movie as a whole?
Sidney Flanigan: It’s interesting to look at Theodore’s character, especially ‘cause we have the (supermarket) manager and all these different kinds of male characters (who) seem more aggressive. They’re almost making these girls feel hostile. But Theodore’s character is (also) intrusive. He really believes that he’s charming and that these girls are actually interested in hanging around him. It’s one of those things where this guy really thinks that this girl is into him, and she’s really not. He’s kind of pushing his way into (their) world. That whole moment (is) a good example of how some people don’t believe that women have been in certain traumatising experiences, because it hasn’t been this super-aggressive, Hollywood version of what that might look like, because this is so much more quiet and subtle. If someone really wanted to reinterpret it as being completely innocent, they could. But at the same time, we know that Talia’s character was not into this. That moment where they like, clasp pinkies, gets me every time – it’s so sad, but it’s so powerful. I really admire women being there for each other and sharing common things that they go through.
Women end up in that position so much, just having to negotiate the drives of men, really. Another favourite part for me is when she pierces her own nose, out-of-the-blue. How do you read that moment?
Sidney Flanigan: It was originally supposed to be a scene where she dyed her hair! But there was a continuity issue with it, it was kind of difficult to change my hair constantly, so Eliza reworked it. I already have a nose piercing so she just kind of worked with that. We watched all these videos on YouTube of young girls piercing their own noses to kind of get an idea of how she would do it. I think that whole moment is about Autumn’s self-control. She’s just found out that she’s pregnant and she’s kind of in denial, so she just wants to feel in control of something. It’s this metaphorical act. A lot of girls give themselves bangs, and she went for the more extreme, radical option.
I feel like in this time of people being stuck indoors there’s a lot of that happening...
Sidney Flanigan: Yeah, things like that. I just got bangs! (laughs)
“Now they’re trying to deem abortion as a non-essential procedure in some states because of the COVID-19 situation. So the film is, unfortunately, so extremely relevant right now” – Sidney Flanigan
Right? And they look really good. When it came to the politics around reproductive rights in the US, how much did you know about that, personally?
Sidney Flanigan: It was something that I’d always felt important to me to protect. But living in New York State, I never had to worry too much about all those restrictions and barriers, so I wasn’t really aware of those. Now I’ve learned a lot about these individual laws that have been put in place in other states and the actual real damage that has been done to Roe V. Wade in order to restrict access. I wasn’t aware of these crisis centers that are basically mock-women’s health centers. I remember when I came home from the shoot, that’s when I started seeing these articles going around about the Heartbeat Bill, which is this, this six-week ban thing that they started putting in place in a lot of states and that was kind of scary. I watched this whole documentary on Netflix called Reversing Roe, which is really interesting. Now they’re trying to deem abortion as a non-essential procedure in some states because of the COVID-19 situation. So the film is, unfortunately, so extremely relevant right now. So I’m glad that people are still able to see it. It’s intense.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always is available digitally across various digital retailers in the UK and Ireland from May 13, and will be available on VOD from May 27