Reel Women: ‘It Felt Like Love’ Is an Unnerving Portrait of a Girl’s Emerging Sexuality
Eliza Hittman's debut feature, 'It Felt Like Love,' follows 14-year-old Lila, who watches longingly as her more developed and experienced best friend hooks up with boyfriends as she herself is painfully trapped in that teen purgatory of "not quite." After meeting a college boy named Sammy, Lila's seemingly harmless lies about her own experience take her into new, dangerous and exceedingly uncomfortable territory in this film that, like recent Israeli import 'S#x Acts' ('Six Acts'), challenges our perceptions of the propriety and responsibility of teen girls in the midst of coming of age, and the sad learned behaviors of gender dynamics.
'It Felt Like Love' opens and closes with Lila (Gina Piersanti) gazing into the camera with her big, unsure doe eyes. The waves crash around her on the beach, and by film's end she is lying in the sand, letting the water crash over her, the waves lapping over her like the slow, rhythmic pulse of sex, of the changes that come with each decision made in her adolescence.
Throughout the film she watches as her friend, the more physically developed and sexually experienced Chiara, hooks up with boyfriends, and listens intently to what Chiara says about these interactions. (Later, Lila will parrot these statements as if they were her own experiences so that she seems more mature.) This isn't so shocking. Lila is desperate for experience, but is often unnoticed next to her more shapely friend. At 14, she hasn't had her first period or even made out with a boy, and her lack of experience becomes painfully -- and endearingly -- clear as we watch her in dance practice next to the other girls, whose hips gyrate with so much knowledge, while Lila awkwardly fumbles.
When Lila overhears Chiara talking about college boy Sammy, who will have sex with anyone without discrimination, Lila makes it her mission to insert herself into his life, showing up at his place of work, calling him, and hanging out with him and his crude friends. It's difficult to get a read on someone like Sammy: does he know better than to sleep with a little girl, or is he repelled by her desperation? His friends certainly have no qualms, as they watch pornographic videos in Lila's presence and spank her with a ping pong paddle. It's situations like these that raise eyebrows and ultimately discomfort -- Lila is only allowing these things to be done around and to her because she thinks it will make Sammy like her and touch her in the ways she has seen other boys do with her friend.
As a 14-year-old girl, the ultimate goal is love, as Lila tells her father hopefully and optimistically when he doubts that the relationship between Chiara and yet another boyfriend will last, promise ring or no. There is some naivety at play here, and the boundaries between the adult understanding of casual sex and the childish understanding of physical interaction are hopelessly lost. Not helping matters are the lack of a mother figure in Lila's life, which, perhaps purposefully, isn't a point of narrative focus until later in the film. In a modern society, it's ridiculous to blame the lack of a specific parental figure on a child's misguided behavior, but with Lila's naivety regarding her own body and the varying shades of sexual interaction and their meaning and lack thereof, one can't help but wonder if perhaps in this specific circumstance, a talk was needed and never had. Perhaps her father is just as naive.
And while the girls in the film spend so much time trying to find pleasure for themselves and take agency of their young sexual lives, they are constantly being directed by men. One of Chiara's boyfriends is possessive and jealous, both about her past experience and about her interactions with other boys in the present, while he refuses to have sex with her or be monogamous, and insists on hand jobs and free groping. But Chiara eventually takes control of the situation, dumping him for someone who will make her happy.
Unfortunately, things aren't as rosy for Lila, who isn't able to take that sort of agency for herself. She continues to lie about her sexual experiences in an effort to sound more mature, until one of those lies places her in an exceedingly unnerving situation with Sammy, which escalates to a skin-crawling and heartbreaking moment with him and his friends. How far will Lila go to prove herself to someone who doesn't want her? How desperate are young women for the affections of young men?
Ultimately, 'It Felt Like Love' paints a picture as sullen as the big, hopeful eyes of its lead -- a reflection of young women in adolescence, who are so desperate for experience and affection, to grow and to learn, that they confuse feelings of physical longing and pleasure with emotional ones. The wires are so hopelessly crossed and tangled so easily at that age, but there's no blame here -- except for maybe on guys like Sammy and his friends, who are old enough to know better, or parents, who should teach their sons not to subjugate and disrespect women or treat them like vending machines. It's hard for young girls to take agency of their sexuality, especially when young boys exist.