Most coming-of-age stories grapple with achieving the right amount of cuming. Either sensationalized (Larry Clarke’s Kids, Catherine Hardwicke’s 13) or neutered (Ken Kwapis’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), the nuanced area which both acknowledges and explores nascent desire is often missed. Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love hits this sweet spot, and exposes it as having gone sour.
Part of the Hivros Tiger Competition at Rotterdam, Hittman’s debut cares deeply for its protagonist, the young Lila (Gina Piersanti), who is struggling to express her sexuality on the cusp of adulthood. Established early on as the “awkward girl”—her one-piece bathing suit and sun-screened face index insecurity instantaneously—to her developed friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), Lila is searching for summer loving. And not the romantic kind. Fixated on the idea of being sexual active, she observes and absorbs Chiara’s turns of phrase regarding cunniligus and professes she wants to be a porn star to impress the older boy she attaches her longings to, Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein). Never brow-beating, Hittman seamlessly communicates the double bind that young girls (or at least white, heterosexual ones—this was a Sundance film after all) face: accepting degradation as a means to empowerment.
Like Lila, It Felt Like Love is preoccupied with the sensual and the aesthetic, capturing lush moments which all but explode with sexual longing. Just as Lila is an adept observer, eyeing Sammy’s bronzed flesh as he dips into a river, Hittman’s camera does the same, loading all the bodies on screen with an excessive sexual charge. At a party, Lila drunkenly walks through a crush of bodies in slow motion. It is a short sequence, but its textures capture the sense of dislocated longing that marks so much of teenage hood—floating desires that can be easily pegged on anyone or anything. Because of this, like Catherine Breillat’s films (which Hittman acknowledges as an influence), the (traditionally) erotic has little place here.
Climaxing with a painful (yet still ambiguous) conclusion, Lila never figures out how to properly project or manage her sexuality. Rebuffed by Sammy and doubted by Chiara, even her father doesn’t believe her claims that she spent a night with a boy. Lila is constantly denied as a sexual being, which only pushes her further towards forcing herself to be one in the narrowest (and only) way she understands it: gratifying men. Ending with a nod to Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, in a rapid cut Lila turns to face the camera wearing a blank white mask. Part of a costume for her dance recital, she begins gyrating on stage with a group of girls as the lyrics to a top 40 rap song profess: “Welcome to hell bitches.” Welcome? We’re already there.