Most filmmakers are male, and so we have ended up with a long and rich history of boy-oriented coming of age movies. I love the genre, and as someone who once came of age into manhood, I identify with many of the best examples of it. But my experience is overrepresented in film, which is why I’m glad Eliza Hittman exists, and that she made It Felt Like Love, a beautiful and painful story about a young girl exploring her emerging sexuality.
Set in the rarely-seen on screen working class sections of southern Brooklyn, It Felt Like Love is at once sensitive and completely agonizing. Young teen Lila lives with her widower dad - a good guy, but unable to help her as she finds sexuality lapping at the shores of her life. Lila has a more experienced friend who pushes her to experiment with boys, but she’s trapped directly between being a girl and being a woman. She has the basic desires but doesn’t understand how to act on them - and what’s more she doesn’t have an understanding of her own self-worth. And so she ends up involved in situations that are queasy-making, that blur the line between innocent exploration and sexual assault... and that feel like something far too common in too many young women’s experiences.
Gina Piersanti is astonishing as Lila, filled with a trembling grace. She’s a character finding her way, making mistakes, and trying to figure out who she is. Piersanti brings each of these aspects of the character clearly, with deep humanity and realism. There’s an almost documentary-like intensity to the performance; there’s not a false note.
Hittman, who wrote and directed the film, goes for a somewhat impressionistic style that will distance some viewers but that I found hypnotic. The movie has tidal rhythms and a sweaty, intimate intensity. Hittman shoots her young actors in body parts, lingering sensually on arms and torsos in ways that represent the characters becoming aware of their own bodies.
She really gets into the monosyllabic world of these teens, and she presents a culturally marginalized world - the closest we get to seeing people like this on screen is The Jersey Shore - with sensitivity and love. The marginalized working class people of Brooklyn echo the marginalized girls in the movie, circling boys in hopes of defining themselves.
It Felt Like Love is quietly beautiful and profoundly moving. This is Hittman’s first feature, and I hope she has more to come. Hell, I wouldn’t be averse to seeing Lila become her own version of Antoine Doinel, continuing on.
It Felt Like Love is playing this weekend in Los Angeles as part of Sundance’s Next Weekend. Click here for more information and tickets. http://www.sundance.org/next/