It Felt Like Love captures the exclusive properties of sex with a degree of intimacy and empathy that, at times, feels authentically revelatory. You watch the uncertain teens of writer-director Eliza Hittman's film with the retrospective awareness that they're trying on poses that will probably define them in one fashion or another for the remainder of their lives. Attempting to satiate their needs, and heartbreakingly clueless as to how to do so, these characters stumble upon traditional modes of adult hypocrisy. You feel as if you're seeing the microscopic origins of a sexual caste system.
Lila (a remarkable Gina Piersanti) is the awkward one: the most intelligent of her friends as well as a bit of a physical late bloomer. Her friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), is the sexually adventurous girl who's endowed with a body far ahead of her age. Chiara often insists on tediously flaunting her new relationship with Patrick (Jesse Cordasco) to Lila, as the two are often kissing and fondling one another as the trio spends long idylls on the beach near Coney Island. It's a kind of dare that none of the three parties are entirely cognizant of: Chiara and Patrick are taunting Lila to be shocked, and Lila, who poignantly adopts an affectation of sexual worldliness, must one-up the dare by shrugging off their behavior as ordinary. Though anyone, sexually mature or not, would normally see Chiara and Patrick's behavior as boorish, thoughtless, and, particularly in the couple's final and tellingly private moment, revelatory of deeper hurt and loneliness.
Hittman understands sex for what it ultimately is for most even largely well-adjusted people: a mythological promise of a world of communion and actualization that they never entirely feel is for them. Sex is the ultimate expression of the gulf between fantasy and reality as it pertains not just to the act itself, but to all of life. Lila's an outsider, all right, and we sense she'll probably carry a variation of this sense of exclusion with her into her adult years. She suffers emotional blows over the course of this film that people don't always recover from, and like many precocious girls pressured to feel shame unfairly, Lila resorts to acts that inadvertently acquaint her with what shame and its correlating disillusionment truly are.
Hittman expresses these meanings to us entirely visually, and the elegant camera movements achieve a haunting contrast between the film's formality and its subject matter. Simply, the tracking shots and close-ups are characterized by a sensuality that the characters have yet to acquaint themselves with, and everything in the film is a blunt double entendre. Early on, Lila's sunblock isn't entirely rubbed into her skin on her face, and we understand that the lotion is a metaphor for the makeup an actor wears on stage, as Lila has yet to gracefully learn to assume her adult role. A dance practice, in which Lila struggles to keep step with her older peers, is a metaphor for sex itself. Every single body, including those of the young girls, is daringly and tellingly objectified, as we're seeing the blossoming of someone's stymied carnal awareness, though this objectification is provided earthly humanist context in the wrenching climax. It Felt Like Love is a tonic for a pop culture that mindlessly offers us barely post-teenage human objects for our delectation on a minute-by-minute basis.