Amateurs of Sex: It Felt Like Love

03/12/2014 4:00 AM |

It Felt Like Love
Directed by Eliza Hittman

This first feature, about the mortifications and self-delusions and dimly understood dangers of early adolescent sexual experience, is at once painfully forthright and fluently dreamy, drifting through southern Brooklyn in a series of tactile close-ups. The protagonist, 14-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti, delivering a subtly layered performance), stares out at the crashing ocean surf, bides her time at Coney Island, and sits at home in Gravesend, humming into a fan and absent-mindedly playing with the cord attached to her window shades. Mostly, though, she’s passing the summer as the third wheel to friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) and her new boyfriend; she’s a firsthand witness to their physical intimacy, and so, naturally, the inexperienced Lila finds herself wanting a partner of her own.

In one of the film’s first shots, writer-director Hittman has her main character look straight into the camera, her face slathered in sunblock, an image that deftly hints at the defensive origins of the soft-spoken girl’s flat affect and the fumbling recklessness to follow. (We learn, eventually, of a recent family trauma.) Lila devotes herself to the pursuit of college student/arcade staffer Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein)—the grunted outgoing message on his voice mail (“You’ve reached the offices of the president of the United States. Nah, I’m playing…”), to which Lila listens several times, is one of the many little details that make these people, and this place, feel so immediate. Sammy becomes increasingly impatient with her off-target overtures, but she soldiers on, telling a roomful of his unsavory friends that she has considered porn “as a career option.”

It Felt Like Love only gets more discomfiting from here, as Lila doesn’t so much learn any kind of “lesson” as face a deeper, darker disillusionment about the world she’s been so desperate to grow into. The coming-of-age film has long since seemed a rite of directorial passage itself, but here Hittman manages to make it her own, displaying an unusually sharp-edged sensitivity to a particular adolescent moment: when a girl might well risk more than she knows in order to become someone new.

Opens March 21