The Sun Valley Film Festival hands out a number of awards and honorary mentions during its March proceedings, each striving to recognize a different area of filmmaking and achievement.
The Pioneer Award, as its name heavily implies, seeks to acknowledge the trailblazers and envelope-pushers in the film industry. This year’s recipient, writer/director Eliza Hittman, aims to move things forward—personally, professionally and with regard to the cinematic landscape—with each project.
Her latest film, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” which will screen at the festival with its creator in attendance, premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to widespread acclaim. The film garnered prizes at Sundance and at the Berlin International Film Festival this year before coming to Sun Valley, and is sitting pretty at 100 percent on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.
The film follows Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a teenager from rural Pennsylvania who becomes pregnant unexpectedly, and Skylar (Talia Ryder), her cousin and confidant, as the two cobble together some money and embark on a secret journey to New York City in search of an abortion clinic.
“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” marks Hittman’s third foray into feature film directing, following 2013’s “It Felt Like Love” and 2017’s “Beach Rats,” for which Hittman won the coveted Dramatic Film Directing Award at Sundance.
In a recent review, Variety described “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” as a “quietly devastating gem” and also took care to point out the deft hand with which Hittman crafts her empathetic characters and avoids the numerous pitfalls of the “social issue movie” labels inevitably evoked by the above synopsis.
Social taboos always seem to draw Hittman, as even a cursory glance at her résumé will elucidate. Her goal, however, is not to provoke controversy or even necessarily to make political statements. Instead, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and its predecessors strive to show that at the heart of all these issues—no matter how divisive and politically charged—are real people struggling to make the best of a bad situation.
“I am interested in exploring taboos that exist both in the real world and in cinema,” Hittman said. “You can call this film a social issue film, but that doesn’t quite describe its tone. There is an issue at the heart of it, but it’s not just about the issue. It’s a poetic odyssey.”
One of the greatest insights Hittman provides into the topic of abortion is the seemingly contradictory way it is both a universal problem debated around the globe and a quintessentially regional one, as laws vary dramatically from area to area.
Hittman said she was inspired by both the real-world story of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman who died from a septic miscarriage after being denied an abortion in Ireland, and the widely acclaimed 2007 Romanian drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.”
In her own film, she synthesizes the fiction and the nonfiction, and boils down the global contexts into an Anywhere, USA, kind of story, handling Autumn and Skylar with care and understanding. As she put it herself, though, “The more localized the film is, the more universal it becomes.”
She achieved that verisimilitude through a lengthy research process, during which time she visited many clinics and worked with a great number of social workers—one of whom plays a vital role in the film, acting opposite Flanigan in the most affecting and emotional scene, from which the title emerges.
That approach helps generate a sense of realism unseen in most other coming-of-age dramas.
“I like to think of my movies as being outtakes. They’re omitted scenes from other coming-of-age movies, showing things that most filmmakers feel they can’t show,” she said. “I explore things I’m very passionate about to create these unsentimental coming-of-age stories, looking at young people who are suffering.”
Through that suffering comes the shared mission of both the filmmaker and her characters. The stories focus on young people “trying to navigate that complex world and trying to figure out who they are in that world,” which is exactly what she must do for them as a writer.
All this happens on the screen and unfolds over the course of the 100-minute run time, but with so much going on emotionally, it may not immediately occur to every viewer. That is exactly why Hittman enjoys attending screenings and speaking with the audience afterward, as she will at the Sun Valley Film Festival.
“I like to talk about the process, to provide insight into how it came together and maybe demystify the whole thing,” she said. “I spent a lot of time on this film trying to construct a narrative that was credible and authentic and unique to me. It’s a film that requires conversation, so I’m really looking forward to talking it over with the audience. It’s an incredible way to connect with people.”
Festivalgoers may refer to the schedule section of this program (see Page 9) to learn when and where “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will be showing, and what other screenings in the lineup will feature filmmakers in attendance.