An evocatively shot, rawly unsentimental coming-of-ager from debut helmer Eliza Hittman, “It Felt Like Love” follows a vulnerable teen who envies the sexual experience of her confident older friend and determines to have a relationship of her own. The writer-director’s stress on the small, degrading details that attend yearning as well as her protagonist’s desperation and self-deception make it more mood piece than straightforward narrative, but the ultra-confident production proves that Hittman’s a talent to watch. Nevertheless, critical and fest admiration are likely to trump commercial success here. The microbudget indie will next court Euro buyers from Rotterdam’s Tiger competition.
It’s summer in working-class Brooklyn. Wide-eyed, 14-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti) tries to learn from her experience as third wheel in the relationship of charismatic Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) and her boyfriend Patrick (Jesse Cordasco). Not only is she witness to their heavy petting sessions on the beach and in the bedroom, but Chiara confides intimate details that virginal Lila only pretends to understand.
When Lila sets her sights on thuggish college boy Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), she impetuously claims a level of sexual expertise that sets her up for humiliation and heartbreak. Although Sammy isn’t interested, he doesn’t — at first — reject her outright, and the mere fact he answers her texts encourages her to spin more lies: to Chiara, her neighbor Nate (Case Prime), her distracted father (Kevin Anthony Ryan) and herself.
Hittman’s screenplay was written around the talents of her impressive non-pro cast, with the modern-dance expertise of Piersanti and Salimeni, both highly credible thesps, figuring prominently. However, with the central emphasis on Lila’s unsentimental education, the narrative fails to provide the character with enough likability to balance her obsessive pursuit of Sammy and her ill-judged bravado.
In her interactions with her father, Lila comes off a typical sullen teen. It is only late into the film when audiences learn something that might be an underlying psychological factor for her behavior. The odd, unclimactic final scene brings the dance rehearsals full circle, but still feels able to be improved on.
Tightly framed, expressive lensing by Sean Porter (“Eden”) supports the poetic realism of the visuals, and calls to mind the beach photographs of Rineke Dijkstra, Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher” and Cate Shortland’s “Somersault.” Spot-on costume and accessory design by Sarah Maiorino telegraphs reams of information about the characters while feeling completely natural.
The music is diegetic, with song selections related to the hip-hop and rapping talents of the young male cast. More important is the rich sound design, in which the heartbeat of nature, particularly the roar of the waves, align the audience with the rush of Lila’s emotions.