Eliza Hittman (IU, ‘01, Theatre and Drama) has one of the most vital artistic voices in the American independent film scene. Her short and feature films use a fascinating technical style to portray moments and experiences that have rarely, if ever, received depiction in American cinema. The fact that her work focuses on characters from marginalized backgrounds adds a political dimension to her work. But this is only because of the quality that, more than anything, defines Hittman’s work as exceptional: empathy.
An early sign of what makes Hittman special as a filmmaker is a brief moment in a scene in her short film, Second Cousins Once Removed. Naomi, the young second cousin of protagonist Jo-Jo, is having dinner with her family. The waitress gives her a kid’s menu, which causes Naomi to give her dad a look. He tells her she can say what she wants to the waitress, so Naomi asks for a regular menu. Everything about that moment — the specificity in establishing Naomi’s individual desire for independence, the universality of its expression of the longing to be treated as an adult, and the fact that it is the type of everyday detail that you feel like you’ve seen often in real life but never onscreen — conveys what is so thrilling about watching Hittman’s films.
Hittman would refine these qualities in her first feature film, It Felt Like Love. It tells the story of Lila, a 14-year-old girl whose friendship with the sexually active Chiara leads her to have a relationship with an older guy during the summer in South Brooklyn. Throughout the film Hittman films moments that we might see in everyday life but not in a movie, like a dog eating out of a trash bin and a girl in a dance class who, instead of dancing effortlessly like Cyd Charisse, stops halfway through because she can’t keep up and watches her friends flawlessly finish their routine. More sinisterly, Hittman films moments of predatory sexuality in which older men take advantage of Lila.
The way that Hittman films these moments — mostly in close-ups and extreme close-ups — prevents us from looking at anything else in the frame. Her reliance on this type of shot allows Hittman to control our gaze and weaponize the act of looking to build empathy for a type of protagonist — young, female, working class — that is not often depicted in mainstream American cinema and is marginalized in American society. That reminds us of the power of cinema to alter individual and public imaginations by building empathy for people who do not often receive it.
Hittman’s follow-up to It Felt Like Love was Beach Rats, which is also about a young working class person in non-gentrified Brooklyn navigating a murky world because of their sexual desires. But whereas the protagonist of her previous film was female, Beach Rats is about a young man named Frankie, who cruises online chat rooms so he can have sex with older men. It is the only film Hittman has made so far with a male protagonist. But she uses the same types of close-ups to make us empathize with his feelings of confusion and discomfort. Hittman’s choice of a male protagonist allows her to show moments that we don’t see on film in a different way than she did in It Felt Like Love, such as Frankie cutting his pubic hair and washing himself in the shower. It’s fascinating to see Hittman apply her style to this type of protagonist and learn that her techniques for building empathy for a character work across multiple types of marginalized backgrounds.
Hittman’s latest film, the masterful Never Rarely Sometimes Always, feels like the culmination of everything she has made so far. Much like her previous shorts and features, its protagonist, in this case a 17-year-old girl named Autumn, is a young person in over her head because her life has been affected, in this case offscreen, by predatory sexuality. It features idiosyncratic moments — Autumn playing tic-tac-toe against a chicken, a realistic karaoke scene — that you feel like you’ve seen before but not in a film. Autumn’s relationship with her younger cousin Skylar is even reminiscent of the relationship between Naomi and Jo-Jo in Second Cousins Once Removed.
But what makes this film different from Hittman’s previous ones is how directly it collides with politics. The main focus is still personal because it deals with Autumn living her life, but when Autumn learns that she is pregnant and decides to have an abortion, the rarely or never before seen moments that Hittman depicts — Autumn being forced to watch a video demonizing abortion by an older female doctor, Autumn trying to induce an abortion by violently and repeatedly hitting her stomach — acquire a political edge. At a time when abortion restrictions have resulted in multiple states having only one abortion clinic open, Hittman’s film — which portrays the procedure in rich detail — is a vital reminder of the importance of making services related to reproductive health accessible so that women can safely make decisions regarding their bodies. The fact that Hittman can make this point with a simple close-up of Autumn’s bruised stomach is a testament to how she can convey a world of meaning in a single moment.
Watching the work of Eliza Hittman is like rereading a book that you have only read before in an abridged version. You recognize what you have enjoyed about seeing life portrayed onscreen before, but you also notice fascinating things that were left out for one reason or another. At their most powerful, her films tackle complicated issues by treating their protagonists with a deep empathy that is radical in how closely it makes us empathize with characters who are marginalized in both cinema and life. If you have any interest at all in cinema, especially independent cinema, you owe it to yourself to see at least one film written and directed by Eliza Hittman.
Join us on May 14 in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room at 6:55 pm EST for a conversation and interactive Q&A with filmmaker and IU alumna Eliza Hittman.
Hittman was previously a guest at IU Cinema in 2013 for a Jorgensen lecture with fellow filmmaker Hannah Fiddell and in 2017 as part of her own series, Eliza Hittman: Two for Two, which included screenings of Beach Rats and It Felt Like Love.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.