What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Eliza Hittman
Produced by: Eliza Hittman, Shrihari Sathe, Laura Wagner
Starring: Gina Piersanti, Giovanna Salimeni, Ronen Rubinstein, Kevin Anthony Ryan, Jesse Cordasco, Nicolas Rosen, Richie Folio, Case Prime
Running Time (in min.): 82 minutes
Rating: Not Yet Rated
Official Selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival
It Felt Like Love (2013)
We’ve all been there: sitting on the beach with a face covered in sunscreen just as a good-looking, shirtless person walks by. With just a look back, we feel equal parts humiliation – is there lotion in my hair? Did I fail to notice a visible wedgie in my bathing suit? – and joy at the attention. Even worse, we have all likely been like Lila, the onlooking third wheel to our older sexual friends as they romp around in the sand. Yes, we’ve all been there or somewhere like it. And yet, it is unlikely that our collective memories of those times should be anything near as transformative, disturbing or beautiful as the ones represented in Eliza Hittman’s debut feature, It Felt Like Love.
Lila’s encounter with Sammy [an appropriately rough-looking Ronen Rubinstein] marks the start of what a learned observer might term her “Lolita phase.” The sunscreen and the one-piece bathing suit were no mistake: until that fateful moment on the beach, this was a young girl not yet a young woman. As with every few days in (what Hittman shows us early on is) an instantly boring Brooklyn summer, Lila had accompanied her pretty best friend Chiara [Giovanna Salimeni, in an impressive first performance] and Chiara’s latest boy-toy, Patrick [Jesse Cordasco] to the beach. Had she stayed home, her irritating single father [Kevin Anthony Ryan] might have nagged her about chores, or she might have just languished in the heat of her bedroom with the fan on. It’s clear, though, that she wasn’t expecting to meet a tattooed ruffian somewhere in the range of a decade older than her – otherwise, she would have skipped the sunscreen, natch.
As played in a remarkable debut performance by Gina Piersanti, teenaged Lila uses the opportunity to create a drastic change in her sexual lifestyle. Piersanti dons a pair of sunglasses that might as well be called, “Ray Ban: Nymphet,” and sets herself to exploring Sammy’s erotic geography, even if it means tracking him down at work. But Hittman, who wrote and produced in addition to directing the film, is too smart to explain Lila’s cosmic journey through words. Instead, Piersanti speaks volumes about her angst, energy, and observation with her face; pillow-lipped and wide eyed, she hardly says much except to tell the appropriate lies about her nonexistent sexual past. In one of the film’s best scenes, she parrots the more experienced Chiara’s story about casual oral sex. “He needs practice,” she tells a young neighbor, referring to no one.
Hittman’s script treads the provocative lines that made Vladimir Nabokov’s novel seem at first only acceptable for under-the-counter sales in France; it should come as no surprise, then, that her film premiered as an Official Selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT section, where the narrative and budgetary boundaries of film are (hopefully) broken. In its narrative perspective alone – that of a seductive fourteen-year-old female antihero – deserves a special journal’s worth of theoretical study. For now, though, we can settle for certain undeniable results: it produces sublime work from its young star, it is physically lovely, and it announces a major multihyphenate talent.
There are justifications and some reasonability behind Lila’s behavior, but so dangerous are her choices that we fret as much for Sammy’s safety as for Lila’s. It’s to Rubinstein’s credit that, against the pale, sweet-looking Piersanti, he looks as much like her prey as her unwitting predator, when in actuality she’s more like an antelope walking directly into the lion’s den. Like Nabokov’s work, It Felt Like Love traffics in assured technique, eloquence (of visual language here, between Hittman and cinematographer Sean Porter, rather than verbal), and a tensile relationship between good and bad choices. Where we allocate our sympathies and our trust is the fundamental difficulty that Hittman explores: should we feel badly for Lila’s decisions, or is she, like so many of us sitting on that beach, just growing up?
That a first feature is willing to ask these questions is the cherry on top of a difficult but worthy experience. Hittman’s short film, Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight, suggested her audiovisual gifts – sound and music editing here, as in that great 2012 work, are excellently choreographed (Lila’s dance recital, in particular, shakes you to the core) – and this film, currently touring the international festival circuit with a screening in Austin, TX September 21, should lock her into the radar of anyone watching closely.