Returning to the subject of worthwhile art movies with unpromising titles, tomorrow Facets begins a weeklong run of a new American indie called It Felt Like Love. With regards to the title, I suspect this one was meant to evoke junior high poetry—the main character, after all, is a 14-year-old girl beginning to experience feelings of lust and romantic longing. Writer-director Eliza Hittman makes it clear that the heroine doesn’t experience these feelings naturally, but rather is forced into them. Everywhere she goes, it seems, Lila finds incitements to sexual activity. Her neighbor, a boy of about her age, boasts of his sexual experiences (probably imaginary, but detailed all the same). Her 16-year-old best friend has become sexually active and talks about this nonstop. And the older boys she and her friend start hanging around expose them to hard-core pornography, mostly of young women being debased. The summary recalls Larry Clark’s exposés of teen sexuality, but Hittman’s perspective is more sorrowful than Clark’s, if also less empathetic.
It Felt Like Love might be described as a narrative companion piece to the recent documentary Sexy Baby, which Chicago Filmmakers screened last year. Both films are concerned with how young women come to perceive their sexuality today, when popular culture bombards them with images of young women as sexual objects (not only in the obvious form of Internet pornography, but in advertisements, music videos, and vulgar movie comedies). Sexy Baby makes a strong case that women are exposed to these images when they’re too young to understand them fully, and that this distorts how they view their bodies and how they govern their sexual behavior. Without coming off as scolding, the documentary argues that our society hasn’t begun to grapple seriously with this problem—though to be fair, the filmmakers acknowledge that the problem is so pervasive that it’s difficult to know where to begin.
Sexy Baby‘s most pointed image may be of a three-year-old aping the lascivious moves she saw in a Britney Spears video. It Felt Like Love achieves something similar in a scene when Lila goes to rehearse a dance routine that she and her friends are preparing for a talent show. The routine is crass and suggestive in the manner of countless music videos and TV commercials, which is exactly the point, and it’s especially resonant for standing in stark contrast to what’s come before. For its first half hour or so, Love takes an intimate view of Lila’s experience, trying to capture the closed-off, consequence-free world that most 14-year-olds imagine they inhabit. But during the dance routine Hittman’s camera seems detached, the images blunt. The scene has a journalistic quality, suggesting a societal portrait rather than a character portrait. These girls, drawn to sexual experimentation before they’re ready, are simply products of their culture, Hittman seems to be saying.
Few other scenes in Love have the power of this one. This is Hittman’s first feature, and I sense that she’s still learning how to shape her ideas into dramatic form. Many of her performers have limited screen experience, and while Hittman succeeds in getting them to do potentially humiliating things on camera, they rarely register as naturals (as Clark’s kids often do) or as suggestive, opaque mysteries, like the inexperienced performers of Robert Bresson or Bruno Dumont. There is a little mystery in Love (spoiler alert), as Hittman never reveals where Lila’s absent mother has been until late in the movie. It turns out she died shortly before the events of the narrative, suggesting that Lila is especially susceptible to bad influences because she lacks the proper maternal guidance. This strikes me as something of a cop-out, since the movie has effectively argued that Lila’s problems are cultural and not simply personal. Still, the effectiveness of that argument makes Love valuable as a conversation starter, regardless of its overall artistic merit.