Love with an Improper Stranger

lilaIt Felt Like Love” is about a confused 14 year-old Brooklyn girl (Gina Piersanti), who wants her friends to think she is as sexually active as her 16 year-old best friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni). Her sad, often pathetic, attempts to accomplish this are presented without sentimentality but also without painting anyone as a victim or villain.

Like most great films about a young woman’s sexuality (and this is definitely one of them; Lars Von Trier’s current “Nymphomaniac” is another) it makes one think about the minefield that is adolescence: jealousy, debasement, peer pressure, inadequate medical advice, parental judgement — and that’s on a good day! Frankly, I don’t know how anyone survives it.

Lila more or less stalks Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), a college boy she wants to hook up with. He’s not interested (“Is there something you want from me?”), yet lets her join him and his buddies while they smoke weed and watch porn. “I’ve considered it [pornography] as a career choice,” she tells them. “The hours are good and so is the pay.”

She and her bestie, Chiari, take dance classes which seem aimed to prepare them for a career as background dancers in rap videos. Even though they are competitive with one another, they have a code of ethics. When one of them asks the other for help, the other says “I would do it for you.” After Chiara’s sweet sixteen, the two girls go to another party. Lila gets drunk and gets into bed with Sammy, passed out after having sex with another girl, hoping he will think he had sex with her. Chiari breaks up with her boyfriend and gives her friendship ring to Lila, who wears it to impress Sammy. Reputation is more important than experience? As the kids say today, epic fail.

The teens portrayed here don’t live in trendy neighborhoods like Williamsburg or Bushwick. They live in places like Bensonhurst and Gravesend. It’s summer break and visits to the shore alternate with the doldrums of watching TV in non-air-conditioned rooms. Lila has a 13 year-old boy neighbor who is naive and sweet (Case Prime). The different ways she relates to a boy one year younger, a girl two years older, and boys from 16 to 19 form a terrific illustration of how dramatically teen consciousness changes in just a few short years.

The teenage boys Lila and Chiara hang out with are all of the gym tan laundry white bro type Joseph Gordon Levitt played in last year’s immensely likable, and very funny, “Don Jon.” They’re not as (ultimately) sweet or as interesting as Don Jon was but also not as brutal as their cinematic cousins in Larry Clark’s “Kids.” They’re beefcake, and they function here much the same way that dumb blondes do in films targeted for men (and the women who put up with them). First-time feature director Eliza Hittman provides a fascinating reversal to “the male gaze” here, though the film theorist who originated the term (Laura Mulvey) has said that until patriarchy disappears, this is not really possible. Feminist filmmakers have been grappling with this idea for decades now; this film is an important milestone in that movement.

The film is related to thematically, and doubtless influenced, by Catherine Breillat’s devastating 2001 film “Fat Girl.” The two films would make a wonderful double feature! Hittman has obviously been schooled by some greats; the seashore sequences made me think of scenes in Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Chantal Akerman’s “La Captive”. “It Felt Like a Love” is boldly original with fantastic performances by a largely non-professional cast. Hittman’s elliptical, mysterious visual style make an almost non-verbal script haunting and emotionally resonant. The soundtrack is as important as the visuals here, full of odd mixing choices and ambient sounds and rap music selections that are not just decorative… they get to you in a visceral way.

“It Felt Like Love” opens today in at the IFC Center in NYC, and next Friday at L.A.’s Downtown Independent and Chicago’s Facets. The film will also eventually become available on VOD. Adam Schartoff interviewed Hittman in episodes 153 and 199 of his Filmwax Radio podcast.

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