With Eliza Hittman’s first feature, It Felt Like Love, you would think the filmmaker had been around much longer. Her style – reminiscent of the work of Andrea Arnold in the way it depicts a young woman’s struggle to gain control of her budding sexuality – feels confident and polished from the moment it kicks off with images of its lead’s back standing alone on the shore. In fact, it’d fit nicely in a double feature with Arnold’s own Fish Tank. It’s a raw portrait of someone who wishes they were as sexually mature as everyone around them seems to be, and a strong debut that deserves viewing.
Lila (Gina Piersanti) is a third wheel. Her best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), totes her around like a vulnerable puppy as she fools around with her boyfriend everywhere they go. They talk about the kind of stuff everyone talks about in their teen years when they’re alone: sex. But, for Lila, who’s never actually engaged in any sexual activity, these conversations are as awkward as it gets. “Yeah, I hate it when they need practice,” she responds weakly as Chiara talks about how her boyfriend isn’t quite so talented at oral sex.
But Lila, being a meek teenager with an abundance of determination, finds herself attracted to Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), a friend who Chiara says will sleep with anyone. It is with his introduction that Lila’s true growth begins, something that’s as potentially dangerous for her as it is exciting. As everyone knows, there’s something appealing about the risks we take in life – with a sense of danger only making us more interested – and Hittman depicts this urge in a young woman smartly.
So often, the camera depicts her as the meek young woman she is; a frail object in the middle of a vast ocean, alone in this world of sex with a sunblock-caked face. It’s in the times when she’s near a man, specifically Sammy, that we realize just how much her burgeoning sexuality needs release. The female gaze takes over, and we’re treated to close-ups of male bodies, but they’re presented through the lens of a naive girl.
The appeal of a so-called “bad boy” who fucks anyone is never fully clear, just as in real life, but the mise en scène always comes off as dedicated as possible to depicting the appeal in such a grimy situation. Dim lights, bland colors, tank-tops covered in sweat and smoke flowing through every square inch of a bedroom leaves one imagining the scent of sex lingering in the air around the men Lila surrounds herself with. And while it may be hard for some viewers to grasp why she places herself in this world that she’s so out of place in, Piersanti’s performance lends a vulnerability to this character that’s necessary.
Such an uncompromising narrative would be nothing without a lead that can match all the awkwardness that comes with puberty and wanting to control one’s sexuality. Hittman milks her freckled, doll-like face for all it’s worth, her distant glances and submissive stares strengthening the film’s more uncomfortable, and ultimately rather sad, scenes. Even when the narrative unnecessarily tries to provide additional context for Lila’s strained relationship to masculinity through scenes with her father, it’s impossible not to wonder what’s going on behind that face.
It Felt Like Love never really feels like a love story, or even something remotely like love, and that’s the point. It could be well-argued that Lila’s actions come off closer to someone obsessed than someone infatuated, but sometimes a longing for a new experience gets the better of us. The reason why Eliza Hittman’s film works so well at depicting this weird feeling that someone young might misinterpret as love is because it never shames its flawed but relatable character, even though her meandering story isn’t all that easy to sympathize with.
Directed by Eliza Hittman; written by Eliza Hittman; starring Gina Piersanti, Giovanna Salimeni, and Ronen Rubinstein; 82 minutes.