by Matt Levine
It Felt Like Love begins with a long shot of crashing waves, with the body of a teenage girl foregrounded against it. As the ocean roars hungrily on the soundtrack, this opening perfectly intimates the unseemly sexual awakening that will soon take place for 14-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti) in and around Brooklyn. The hormone-fueled carnality of our teenage years is, for most of us, a subject of utmost secrecy—even when relatively painless, the leap from innocence to experience is rarely a fluid process. For Lila especially—who lives in a cramped apartment with her single father, spending most of her days hanging out with her promiscuous older friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni)—this maturation will provide a shattering realization that the sexual gamesmanship between men and women can be a devastating path to maneuver.
Director: Eliza Hittman
Producers: Eliza Hittman, Shrihari Sathe, Laura Wagner
Writer: Eliza Hittman
Cinematographer: Sean Porter
Editors: Scott Cummings, Carlos Marques-Marcet
Cast: Gina Piersanti, Giovanna Salimeni, Ronen Rubinstein, Jesse Cordasco, Nick Rosen, Richie Folio, Case Prime, Kevin Anthony Ryan
Premiere: January 19, 2013 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 21, 2014
US Distributor: Variance Films
Chiara, too, may not be as schooled in the art of love as she professes to be; she has lost her virginity, but her make-out sessions with new boyfriend Patrick (Jesse Cordasco) retain the fumbling awkwardness of puberty. Of Patrick, Chiara candidly claims, “He went down on me last night. It was okay. He needs practice though.” Lila smiles wearily, replying “I hate it when they need practice." Lila has a sweet friendship with the younger boy next door, Nate (Case Prime), but it’s entirely chaste; most of her interest in the muscly, suntanned older boys is silent and aloof as she observes them lustfully from a distance.
The primary object of Lila’s infatuation is Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), a tank-topped bro who, we’re told early on, “fucks anything that moves.” This theory is proven wrong, though, when Sammy resists Lila’s overeager advances; when she buses across Brooklyn just to visit him at the arcade where he works (and purposefully leaves her bag behind so she can see him again), he gently makes it clear he has no interest in her somewhat precocious flirtations. At least initially, Sammy is a more sensitive character than we might have expected; sex-obsessed, maybe, but also understanding of Lila’s driving curiosity and teenage confusion. On their first pseudo-date, Sammy cuts his foot while swimming and limps home while Lila supports his body—a witty and poignant way to suggest Sammy’s vulnerability along with Lila’s.
This isn’t to say that Lila’s headlong leap into premature sexual activity is a rosy process. Desperate to “become a woman” and attract the same attention as the coy Chiara, Lila solicits Sammy with increasing zeal. She wriggles her way into his Brooklyn bachelor pad, where he and his friends smoke gargantuan blunts and find it normal to watch porn together; she allows them to spank her with a ping-pong paddle, claims she’s thought about a career in porn (“it’s a decent living,” she ludicrously asserts), and acquiesces all too easily to their joking suggestion that she perform oral sex on them simultaneously (an act which is, thankfully, never consummated). These scenes in which Lila sits meekly in the corner of Sammy’s apartment, desperate to indulge her growing sexual appetite and garner male attention, are some of the most disturbing in any film so far this year—especially because we have to acknowledge that similarly turbulent sexual experiences are not uncommon for teenagers unsure how to navigate this uneasy terrain.
With her debut feature, New York-based filmmaker Eliza Hittman shows tremendous sympathy towards her young characters’ angst and an admirable attempt to deal with teenage female sexuality in a sincere and realistic way. Most hormonal teenagers in American movies perceive sex as a lark and a conquest, a badge of honor and an opportunity for all kinds of scatological pratfalls. It Felt Like Love tries to re-inject a sobering honesty into the loss of sexual innocence trope, suggesting that sex at a young age can make you feel more confused and vulnerable rather than less so. Actually, in terms of narrative and emotional gratification, the film may veer too aggressively into sordid territory: many of these characters are sullen zombies, made even more somber by the realization that genuine emotional connection is unavailable to them. The film’s lack of optimistic levity is one of the things that makes it so powerful, but it also limits our empathy for some of the main characters, for whom happiness seems forever out-of-reach. At times, It Felt Like Love feels too much like a dirge, bemoaning the characters’ waning hope for the future.
But in a post-Elliot Rodger society where the #YesAllWomen movement has made female sexual victimization an unavoidable reality, films like It Felt Like Love are even more valuable. There are plenty of titillating sex comedies out there; Hittman’s film hopes instead to address the dark side of young lust, observing an environment in which casual misogyny and the objectification of women are commonplace. The film concentrates not on male sexual abuse of women (though it certainly contains some distressing examples), but on the psychological and societal circumstances which might pressure young women to give in to some men’s sexual expectations and coercions.
Even more disturbing than the lecherous behavior of Sammy and his friends is Lila’s content, self-satisfied smile when they drive her home, drunk and high: she feels like she’s advanced one more step on her journey to sexual self-discovery. Both Chiara and Lila seem to pursue men so determinedly because of their self-loathing, their inability to recognize their own worth in any other way. Those looking for an easy psychological answer to Lila’s reckless hedonism may point to her mother’s death from breast cancer when she was very young (a fact revealed to the audience while Lila is in the midst of an emergency contraception procedure); social analysts, meanwhile, might point towards the pornography the men consume as a catalyst for their feelings of sexual entitlement. But the uncomfortable fact is that no diagnoses are so easy; the reasons why Lila takes such an eager part in her own sexual humiliation are more elusive, and perhaps more pervasive, than psychological backstories or the negative influence of media.
In some ways, It Felt Like Love charts a familiar path for low-budget, gritty coming-of-age stories: the faded, handheld camerawork, morose performances, and ambiguous storyline (in which characters may or may not trace some kind of evolution) are familiar to anyone who’s seen Kids (1995), L.I.E. (2001), or 12 and Holding (2005). Thankfully, though, these elements are powerfully achieved. Sean Porter’s colorful, shallow-focus cinematography evokes a vivid milieu, and the naturalistic performances by a non-professional cast (who worked with Hittman to develop their roles) make some of the self-consciously vulgar dialogue sound legitimate and honest. In other ways, also, Hittman makes this material seem disarmingly new: the opening image of crashing waves is repeated at the film’s finale (at night instead of during the daytime), only to have Lila turn to the audience in a startling Kabuki mask—which, it turns out, is part of a dance performance featuring Lila, Chiara, and their friends. This potentially silly denouement actually makes perfect narrative and symbolic sense: the dancers’ barely-clothed gyrations suggest this performance as an extension of their sexual awakening, but it also grants these women creative control and greater authority in shaping their image. It’s a strong, unforgettable ending, culminating in a close-up that has Lila staring directly into the camera—a gesture which surprisingly brings to mind Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). It Felt Like Love doesn’t allow for much hope, but perhaps in this final shot Lila has worked up the nerve to master her own self-perception and embrace it unapologetically. It’s hard to know, of course: like many rough-edged dramas, it ends abruptly, forcing us to question what will happen to the characters after the movie ends. With its evocative tone and distressingly prescient sexual politics, It Felt Like Love ensures that we won’t soon forget about Lila’s plight; we can only hope that the future holds brighter relationships and a more fulfilling sense of intimacy than what she undergoes here.