Tuesday, April 8, 2014

It Felt Like Love

IT FELT LIKE LOVE              B+           
USA  (82 mi)  2013  d:  Eliza Hittman               Official site

If you happen to know a brave fifteen-year-old, that’s not too embarrassed to act in an emotional teenage role, that deals with things teenagers deal with — please have her contact me.  Most of the kids I’ve been seeing can only handle a part that’s an idealized version of how they want to be perceived.  It’s kind of incredible that parents would let their children perform in some totally exploitative slasher movie, but tense up at the opportunity to be a part of a fictional yet emotionally truthful coming-of-age film.     
—Eliza Hittman, director post on the Tumbler blog while searching to cast her lead character, June 7, 2012

This is a heavily stylized American indie film that offers a different take on a 14-year old girl’s sexual awakening, shot in the edgy, off kilter manner of Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill (2010), becoming more of a fragmented, lyrical abstraction than a straightforward coming-of-age tale, told in a kaleidoscope style of shifting images where the narrative is supplanted by the sensuality of the imagery.  First time writer/director Eliza Hittman grew up in central Brooklyn in a neighborhood called Flatbush, now given a fancy real estate name called Ditmas Park, and teaches graduate level directing classes at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.  Her film premiered at Sundance nearly a year ago where it was voted (#7) by Laura Kern as one of the Top 10 Films from Sundance 2013 | Film Comment.  What separates this film from others is the slowly building sensuous undertone that continues to create sexual tension throughout, where because of the starkly realistic discussion of teen sexuality, the viewer’s expectations are subverted by the degree of the lead character’s extreme alienation, becoming a darker, more introverted film.  While the tendency of male directors is to show plenty of nudity in highly acclaimed coming-of-age films like the Cannes Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2) (2013) and Ozon’s Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie) (2013), to name two of the select twenty films at Cannes playing in competition, but Hittman’s film allows for a feminist interpretation that has historically been viewed through a misogynist lens.  Lila (Gina Piersanti) is an alienated girl on the outside who has just lost her mom, while her father (Kevin Anthony Ryan) is still a basket case of frazzled nerves.  But our introduction to the character is a wordless opening sequence at the beach, where Lila’s face has a peculiar white mask effect, caked perhaps by an excess of sunscreen, but it gives her the theatrical look of a Kabuki style face, a stand-in for the artificial face teens often show to others in public while hiding their true self.  Already we can tell she’s different, accompanied by another couple, her best friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), more sexually experienced, seen openly kissing and flirting with her boyfriend Patrick (Jesse Cordasco) in Lila’s presence.  Not only does she not seem to mind, but she can also be seen observing them, as a certain voyeurism comes into play, where underneath it all she craves that same kind of attention. 

Shortly afterwards, Lila can be seen hanging out in her backyard with a younger neighbor boy, Nate (Case Prime), repeating to him Chiara’s sexual experiences as if they were her own, pretending to be more sexually active, as if this is the path to popularity and respect.  This schism between what’s imagined and what’s real seems to define what takes place inside a teenager’s head, where they always want things to be better than they are.  This obsession with sexuality follows Lila throughout the film, where she literally leads a double life, spending her time pretending to be something that she’s not.  Watching Chiara move from boy to boy with seeming ease, often rubbing her nose in it, while she continually watches from the sidelines only makes her feel worse, forced to wonder what’s wrong with her, where her self-esteem hits rock bottom.  Driven for her own emotional connection, she catches a glance on the beach from an older guy in a tanktop with a tattooed physique, where she overhears someone describe him as a skanky college guy horny enough to fuck anything that moves, a “douchebag who’ll sleep with anyone.”  The next day, Lila’s at the pool hall where Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein) works claiming she just happened to be in the neighborhood.  While she continually places herself in his path, which lends itself to a certain threat of danger, the viewer is familiar with any number of possibilities, not all of them good, as Sammy toys with her, but keeps his distance, while Lila is led to believe that having sex will reveal an ultimate truth and suddenly catapult her into friendships she otherwise doesn’t have.  While treading in dark territory, the film also has its lighter side, like Chiara’s 16th birthday party, which turns into a Bat Mitzvah-style candle-lighting ceremony featuring plenty of food and dancing, while a melancholic Lila sits alone, pretty much avoided by everybody else, which perfectly describes her life. 

Lila convinces Chiara to crash a drinking party at Sammy’s house and his macho friends, where the language of misogynist hip-hop music is blaring all around them, where it’s impossible not to be drowned out by the prevailing lyrics of incessant fucking.  Despite the fact this is an older crowd downing shots by the second, Lila is entranced by what she sees all around her, wandering through the rooms in slow motion, given an impressionistic feel, quickly becoming intoxicated herself, as Chiara leaves her heaving in the bathroom, spending much of the evening on the floor.  By the time she comes to her senses, she climbs into bed and switches places with someone who earlier slept with Sammy, pretending he slept with her when he wakes in the morning and that he was too drunk to notice.  This little scheme reveals the depth of depravity in this young woman’s soul, as her yearning to be touched and appreciated, to be part of “the world” around her overrides everything else, convincing herself that this alternate world is her reality.  When she tells Chiara that she’s finally sexually active, her friend insists upon making her an appointment for birth control, an examination that borders on the surreal.  When Lila returns to the scene of the crime, she is only humiliated even more by Sammy’s debase treatment, which is juxtaposed by a backdrop of ESPN sports playing in the background, making the deplorable experience even more banal.  As it finally sinks in that she’s fooling herself, or so it seems to the viewer, thoughts of suicide are everpresent, as her singular existence is all she can feel, finding herself more alone than ever, ultimately alienated even from herself, where her path feels desperate.  At such a dour moment, there’s an interesting cut to an up-tempo school dance quartet that bumps and grinds to explicitly foul rap lyrics, which is literally an assault of the F-word, where practices progress to performing before the public, where the graphic sexual rhythm couldn’t feel more out of place, but none more than Lila, who can’t keep up with the others and is always a bit out of synch.  The soft focus cinematography by Sean Porter creates an experimental mosaic, using plenty of close ups, where the anxiety of the camera matches the restless inner spirit, told almost subliminally, where the aesthetic is more about reaching what’s underneath the surface.  The film recalls German director Valeska Grisebach’s first feature BE MY STAR (2001), another film that associates teenage sexual attraction with an inability to communicate, where the films by both female directors (likely influenced by Claire Denis) emphasize textures, duplicating teenage isolation with a meticulous precision, becoming more about what isn’t shown onscreen, creating a mysterious ambiguity about the existing emptiness within and the pressures to want sex in order to finally be accepted.            

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