Fourteen-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti) is embarrassed by her sexual inexperience, while her pretty best friend Chiara spends her summer making out with her new beau. Eager to prove her desirability, the shy and retiring Lila focuses her attention on local lothario Sammy. She approaches him with clumsy come-ons, and Sammy swats her away. But Lila keeps pushing into the world of Sammy’s hyper-macho friends, where sex is less about exploration than intimidation and power.
It Felt Like Love is “gorgeously shot” (NY Post) in the street and humid apartments of South Brooklyn, perfectly capturing the hothouse atmosphere of indolent summer afternoons at home. It “seductively conjures a moment when trying on identities can be a fast track to self-knowledge. Or self-destruction” (New York Times).
eyelights: its honest look a teen sexuality. its naturalesque performances. its camera work.
eyesores: its monotone. its inscrutable ending.
“He needs practice.”
God, as a young teenager, sex was such a pitfall: I wanted to experience it but, like most kids around me, I had no clue how to go about it; my teen years were a morass of hormones and insecurity. One thing for certain, though, is that I had no idea that girls were also experiencing similar feelings. Had I known, then they probably wouldn’t have been so unapproachable.
And vice versa.
‘It Felt Like Love’ is writer-director Eliza Hittman’s debut feature film. Released in 2013, it tells the story of Lila, a young teenager who wants to experience what Chiara, her best friend, is constantly talking about: sex with boys. But she’s awkward and a bit of a wallflower, so she has no idea where to begin. She masturbates. She tries to coax a friend. To no avail.
It’s only when she encounters Sammy, an older boy that Chiara claims will have sex with anyone, that Lila has a plan. She decides to focus all her attention on Sammy, infiltrating herself in his environment (visiting his workplace, hanging around with him and his friends, going to his parties) in order to get closer to him. But it’s never as easy as being available, is it?
With ‘It felt Like Love’, Hittman takes us on a sober journey through a young woman’s blooming sexuality. It felt very real to me, like the female equivalent of what I’ve known to some degree – though Lila pushes her limits in her quest for sexual experience and even creates a false public identity for herself to seem more on par with her peers – something I never did.
I never would have lied about a girl. I never would have started drinking for a girl. I never would have tried to make the hungover object of my lust believe that we’d had slept together when it wasn’t true. Lila does. She slowly gets immersed in a web of lies, forgetting that her ultimate goal is sexual experience, not sex with Sammy. She confounds the two and begins to spiral.
And to what end?
What’s interesting is that, though Lila wants to experience sex, she constantly backs out of opportunities to push her boundaries, using some lame made-up excuse. It wasn’t very clear if this was due to timidity, fear, prudishness or a combination of all of these, but she always came close and never crossed the line. Perhaps she needed it to be on her terms?
Or maybe she just wasn’t ready.
Only Lila knows.
This is a slow picture that lingers in the moment, giving us the impression of being a reflection of Lila, looking back at her. It’s filled with many tight shots of Lila in moments that would be tempting to go wide, like when she’s on a rollercoaster; instead of experiencing the ride, we experience her emotional restraint. And when she peeps on people we only see a part of her.
We also watch the world with her eyes, with a female equivalence of the male gaze: the young men are objectified as vehicles for Lila’s eventual gratification. The camera follows their lines and every muscle on their sleek bodies, and there’s no doubt what’s on her mind. On that same note, we are much more privy to male nudity (even in full!) than female nudity.
‘It felt Like Love’ counterbalances the many films by males, about males, and for males.
The camera quietly observes Lila in much the same way that she quietly observe the people around her. When she is on the beach during the day, staring at the waves crashing before her, we’re behind her, like a shadow. The same at the end, when she returns to the beach and watches the sea under the moonlight; we are behind her, watching. And when she finally goes in, we do too.
The ending was a bit unclear to me. Though there’s an obvious impression of change in the character, given the similar but altered bookends, I wasn’t sure if Hittman was suggesting that she’d taken a plunge into a darker world, made the wrong choices. That’s the only conclusion I can come to, especially after the naughty visit with Sammy and his two pot-smoking friends.
The finale, a dance number that she, Chiara and two other girls had been practicing throughout, suggest that she’s now hiding behind a mask and that her frustrations are making her lash out. But that part was a bit inscrutable to me. Watching Lila stare at the camera, back at us for the first time, it was clear that Hittman intended for us to take something away from this.
Still, I enjoyed ‘It Felt Like Love’. Gina Piersanti’s naturalesque performance as Lila was terrific and I loved going into that character’s head for 80 minutes. It underscores the fact that, even today, sexuality is a complicated part of ourselves, and transitioning from non-sexual to sexual beings isn’t an easy experience for all of us. It’s a journey filled with challenges.
But it’s a journey worth taking.
Date of viewing: December 26, 2016