The debut feature film from writer/director Eliza Hittman, "It Felt Like Love," is a poetic, expressive exploration of a young girl's sexuality during one hot Brooklyn summer. Lila is lonely and inexperienced, tagging along with her friend Chiara and her boyfriend Patrick as they explore Rockaway beach – and each other. Lila desperately wants to fit in, but she also wants more than that, as she lusts after the older Sammy. The film perfectly captures that budding desire so characteristic of hormonal teenage girls, but so often denied on film, where nubile young women are always the subject of the camera's gaze.
How Hittman plays with the gaze is one of the most captivating aspects of "It Felt Like Love." Lila, played sensitively in all of her awkwardness by newcomer Gina Piersanti, isn't so much the Lolita-esque subject of the gaze as one might expect, but instead, is the owner of said gaze. Lila watches her friend Chiara and mimics her overly sexual language, but she doesn't know what it is exactly that she wants. Lila gazes at the tawny, tattooed skin of Sammy, wanting him but not knowing how to have him. Her fumblings and missteps are all too familiar, and her desire for a human connection is magnified by her distant relationship with her father and her absent mother. Lila must learn by watching, but what does she see?
There is a lyrical quality to the cinematography, lingering on Lila's face, getting lost in the tall grasses of the marshy wetlands, or showing us the beauty that Lila sees in Sammy or Chiara (cinematographer Sean Porter also shot the SXSW Audience Award-winning "Eden"). The quiet, beautiful sadness of the camera harkens to a filmmaker like Lynne Ramsay – if Lynne Ramsay directed "Jersey Shore." The only soundtrack comes from the diegesis: the guys rapping in the car (the film features members of the Brooklyn rap collective Pro Era), the songs to which the girls practice dance, and this emphasis on realism creates an even more immersive experience within the subjective world of Lila. When she makes questionable decisions that put her in dangerous situations, we understand why she does this, how it's her only way of reaching out to others.
Hittman's film allows for the sexual desire of young women, recognizing their vulnerability in this world and the delicate balance they have to maintain as sexual beings expected to be sexually and morally pure. As the girls perform the hip-hop dance they've been rehearsing, the film shows us how and when society expects them to perform their gender, with red lips and hip thrusts. This kind of performance is controlled, accepted, applauded. Hittman's film doesn't push an agenda on its viewer, but aligns us with the desires, confusions, and frustrations of Lila in such a way as to fully understand the conundrum she finds herself in, and why she might do the things that she does. It's a restrained storytelling that works in this forum, and keeps the film from feeling preachy or overly message-driven, instead choosing to focus on the honesty of the situations.
The film is an intimate and tender look at female sexuality that allows for a feminist interpretation of this scenario that has historically been viewed through a misogynist lens. All of the performances by the cast of unknown actors ring truer than life, particularly Piersanti, who carries the film, and Ronen Rubinstein, who plays Sammy, balancing sympathetic and menacing on a razor's edge. "It Felt Like Love," marks the arrival of a new crop of talent to watch, behind the camera and in front. [A-]