In her pitch-perfect feature film debut, writer-director Eliza Hittman explores the terrible uncertainties of adolescence, and in the process reclaims the word “girls” for its rightful owners. Fourteen-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti) is way too young to lose her virginity, and smart enough to know it, but she can think of little else. Her best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), on the verge of 16, has “been with” three boys and is getting hot and heavy with a fourth, and the shy, deeply interior Lila is determined to catch up. The camera of gifted cinematographer Sean Porter hovers behind and beside Lila as she leaves her south Brooklyn house each morning to trail like a stray puppy behind Chiara and her boyfriend, Patrick (Jesse Cordasco), who nuzzle and whisper and coo as they walk down a crowded street.
Lila is the very definition of a third wheel, but Chiara clearly wouldn’t dream of leaving her behind. Hittman isn’t big on providing backstory (Lila lives with her father; where is her mother?), but these two girls have surely known each other forever. You can tell by the way Chiara rinses hair dye through Lila’s hair (Chiara thinks the color is a mistake), or the way Chiara wraps her friend’s braid around her fingers as Lila, drunk at a party, pukes in the bathroom. Girl stuff.
Lila is sitting on the beach with her face slathered in thick white sunscreen when she first sees Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), who goes to college and works in a pool hall, and whose glance back at Lila as he walks past seems to flick a switch in her brain. The next day, Lila’s at the pool hall, wearing a sexy blouse and shorts, looking older, leggier, more knowing (she hopes). Sammy isn’t the least bit fooled, but he’s charmed (and bored), and soon they’re hanging out. He hasn’t made a move, and isn’t planning to, maybe, but Lila keeps planting herself in his path, so something, surely, is going to happen. Lila’s father (Kevin Anthony Ryan) isn’t terribly concerned about his little girl, out there wandering who knows where, but moviegoers will most definitely worry. A lot.
It Felt Like Love is brilliantly, brutally tactile. On her first visit to the pool hall, Lila is distracted by the pop-pop-pop of a muscled, tatted young man in a sleeveless T-shirt smacking a ping-pong paddle against his hand. (Sammy and his buddies all wear wifebeaters; they’re would-be Brandos, though they don’t know enough to know it.) Much later, at a three-man drinking party Lila has crashed, that same guy will spin a ping-pong paddle in his hand, startling Lila, who seems to sense in the gesture something both sensual and threatening. It’s hard to tell how scared Lila is, but we’re plenty scared for her. This beautiful, soulful girl appears to believe that having sex will reveal an essential truth, but the kind of knowledge she’s likely to gain in that room, with those three young men, isn’t worth having. Not at age 14, or ever.