Truffaut famously ended The 400 Blows by sending young Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to the ocean, a place he had never been, to gaze out at a future he cannot yet imagine. Eliza Hittman begins her film, It Felt Like Love, with a similar moment, as young Lila (Gina Piersanti) stares off the Coney Island coast, the sound of waves crashing all around her, the undertow pulling at her legs even as the tide also pushes her further away.
Just as this first image evokes the confusing surges of adolescent sexuality, It Felt Like Love goes on to offer other visual analogies. Mimicking the tunnel vision brought on by such physical desires, the frame rarely leaves the immediate vicinity of her characters, blurred with movement and tight on detail, claustrophobic but also achieving a powerful sense of intimacy. The film scrupulously avoids establishing shots, anything that gives us space from the cramped lives and sweaty engagements of its young characters.
Moreover, the camera often stays at torso level, showing Lila or her friends’ physical motions but making their emotions more difficult to know, without the usual confirmation provided by a facial expression. To compound our sense of guessing, conversations frequently end with a question lingering in the air like the wisp of something acrid, without the possible closure of an audible response.
Such framing suggests the limited perspectives and erratic motion characterizing Lila’s attempts to work through her sexual identity and desires. At first she verbally parrots her best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), a sexually active 15-year-old. But she also knows enough to avoid what she sees as Chiara’s “needy” inclinations, at least until she falls for handsome Sammy (Ronen Rubenstein). When she meets this older boy on the beach, Lila starts devising how best to lure him to her. She starts with flirtations, but when those don’t take, she tries to be more aggressive without coming on too strong, eventually, and wholly against her will, she becomes precisely the coveting, pathetic little girl she was initially so desperate not to be.
To Lila, sexuality is a game played by older, more experienced kids, a game whose rules seem at once arbitrary and intractable. Not having a grasp on how to play it leaves Lila, at the end, frighteningly vulnerable, a sensation indicated repeatedly in the film’s close, mobile compositions.
The Brooklyn-based Hittman creates a credible world for Lila, built of complicated, changing relationships with Chiara, Lila’s disinterested single parent (Kevin Anthony Ryan), and also her younger neighbor, Nate (Case Prime), who can’t fathom what she’s going through. As these relationships become more difficult for her to negotiate, Lila sees her world as less secure, and her increasing loneliness is both startling and unsettling. She feels she has no one with whom she might discuss her overwhelming feelings, and lacks the language to express them.
Given the opportunity to ask questions of a caring female gynecologist (Kate Benson) during an exam, Lila remains frustratingly mute. Her silent suffering remains hers alone, a continual burden, not least when she’s trying to communicate with Sammy: “Do you want something from me?” he asks her helpfully. She responds too quickly. “What would I want, anyways?”
As much as Lila is unable to articulate desires or imagine her future, It Felt Like Love consistently offers visual allusions. Near film’s end, Lila returns to the shore and the roar of surf, alone on the dark, deserted beach. Eventually, as she lies down in the path of the surging tide, letting the water buffet her body, Lila might be longing to be carried out into its shadowy depths.
But maybe this image, so different from Truffaut’s, so physical and so embodied, means something else. As with many elements in this captivating film, the moment might be read variously, perhaps a yearning for release from her own limits or maybe a change within herself, perhaps a will to give herself over, to be carried wherever the tide will take her.