So, sigh. . . Is there anything more annoying than a glowing review of a film you can’t see? I know, I know. . . But I saw this film at the Maryland Film Festival this weekend and fell in love with it and just needed to write about it. If there’s any justice, it’ll be coming soon to an independent cinema house near you (hint-hint, film distribution companies).
The noted philosopher Britney Spears once famously sang that she was “not a girl, not yet a woman” and that paradox perfectly describes the status of Lila (Gina Piersanti), a 14 year old spending a long, listless summer on the beaches of Brooklyn.
Her best friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeri) may only be a year older but she’s miles ahead in terms of her own sexual development. A dancer, Chiara has a knowledge of her body and its seductive powers. She’s already slept with boys and nonchalantly mentions that her new boyfriend, Patrick (Jesse Cordasco), needs practice in the oral sex department.
“I hate when they need practice,” Lila says, tentatively.
Lila’s own burgeoning sexuality has put her in a kind of fugue state—everywhere there is flesh, skin, and heat, and first time director Eliza Hittman creates a mood that is both innocent and erotically charged, just like Lila herself.
Lila’s next door neighbor Nate (Case Prime) is a precocious 7th grader—he might very well be the most self-aware person in the film—but he’s a child compared to Chiara and her grownup-seeming friends. Lila is literally stuck between the child next door and the almost-woman her best friend has become.
Her grieving father is no help. Lila’s mother has recently died of cancer and he feels so ill-equipped to advise a daughter going through puberty, he barely bothers to try.
In some ways, and more than any other film I can remember, It Felt Like Love is about the female gaze. Lila gazes at Chiara for clues to her own sexuality, but soon she becomes fixated on a new subject: The handsome, college-aged Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), a decent enough kid, but hardly worthy of such worship. Lila starts hanging around him at the pool hall where he works, awkwardly flirting with him. He seems amused and slightly nonplussed by her presence. She convinces herself he might become her boyfriend.
There is a bit of sexual menace in the film, mostly from Sammy’s bored friends, who see the needy Lila as ripe for the plucking. One scene in the den of Sammy’s home veers close to unwatchable, but Hittman’s film is too gently affectionate toward its heroine to put her in real peril.
Hittman coaxes unbelievably natural performances out of her young cast, mostly non-actors, and gets the cadence of their voices and conversations just right. (The boys unself-consciously chant rap songs on the bus, as the girls watch adoringly, and the texts between Lila and Sammy are written in hilariously indecipherable codes of teenspeak.)
And Hittman gets the cadence of lazy, hazy, sensuous summers of self-discovery just right, too. To see a sexually frank coming of age story from the perspective of a teenage girl feels downright revelatory.