Sprocket Holes is an irregular column focused on small release films either playing limited engagements in major cities or available on VOD. As well as appreciating indies on the fringes of the festival circuit, it also takes a second look at under the radar, underappreciated, unheard of films that have slipped through the celluloid cracks.
From behind in fuzzy soft focus, she's hard to make out but we know exactly how Lila feels even before we've seen her face.
Standing on the beach staring out at the crashing waves, the roiling adolescence churning up inside the lonely fifteen-year-old stares right back. For many, these turbulent years are a struggle for identity, a struggle at the heart of Eliza Hittman's debut feature, which opens with an indistinct glimpse of its protagonist as a statement of intent.
Finally turning to the camera in a sad-faced mask of sunscreen, Lila recalls that most iconic of social outcasts, Charlie Chaplin's persona of 'The Tramp' and all his attendant sympathy and sadness. That face is angry too, and worn like war paint, the lotion conceals the cracks of a belligerent, unhappy youth. Lila's forlorn grimace of pubescent hopelessness works the heartstrings but how Hittman works the frame – continually pushing Lila off to one side and blurring her out like an unwelcome smear in her own story – does much to earn compassion for the character early on, even as desperate desires and social envy find Lila deludedly falling for an older, disinterested thug and putting herself in alarmingly compromising positions to try and force a connection.
BFF Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) is already on boyfriend number three and quickly outgrowing inexperienced Lila, who's determined to bag a tattooed Gerbroni boyfriend of her own so that she can hold on to her childhood friend whilst curbing her own flagging sense of self-worth. If sixteen is supposed to mark the onset of adulthood, the couple of years leading up to that milestone no longer belong to an age of innocence that they once did, and haven't for quite some time. It's a depressing reality that goes as far back as Larry Clark's Kids, another Brooklyn set downer of hyper sexualised impatience.
Lila tries to initiate a game of truth or dare with her much younger neighbour Nate (Case Prime), a game that traditionally allows awkward American teens to talk openly about an otherwise impossible-to-broach topic, but Nate suggests Checkers instead. Similarly, her older friends refuse to think of her that way, and the casting of Gina Piersanti as Lila is what makes the group reaction seem so refreshingly believable for this type of picture. While the majority of Hollywood ugly ducklings are barely de-glamed starlets, Piersanti brings both authenticity to her character and authority as an actress. Enough of a Plain Jane to be romantically ignored, she's not so plain that her personality isn't intriguing enough to carry a film. It helps that she looks a lot younger than her co-stars, a look that bad boy of the beach Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein) is visibly uncomfortable with. He's said to be horny enough to fuck anything that moves, yet Sammy makes a point of keeping his distance whenever Lila gets too close. They just don't look right together as a couple – he knows this, and knows that all his friends would think the same thing.
It's not lost on Lila either, who's embarrassed as much as she embarrasses others. It's not enough that Chiara announces that she's made out with every one of her friends but Lila, she repeatedly rubs what Lila craves her best friend's face. Her very public displays of affection exhibit all the arrogance of someone whose recently started having sex and seems to have acquired overnight worldliness in the bargain.
It's clear that Chiara thinks she's more grown up than she acts, but there's no doubting her embrace of newfound sexuality; blossoming as Lila remains hesitant and stunted. Both girls are part of a school dance quartet which bumps and grinds along with the kind of explicitly foul rap songs that make up the film's soundtrack, their relative sexual experience unfailingly matching the way they move. An uncomfortably memorable scene in which they perform in front of the whole school with adults and teachers present (thrusting their midriffs as F-bombs drop all around them) is as disturbing as any of the degrading scrapes Lila gets herself into. All the while the girls gyrate around as if it's the most ordinary thing in the world, and if theirs is a writhing sexual rhythm, it's immediately apparent that Lila doesn't have it, her consciously mimicked movements out of step with the rest of the group.
Profane and misogynist rhymes also ring out across awkward scenes of social dancing. Over the blare of a party at Sammy's house one lyric boasts: "We fucked all week. We fucked all speeds", while another talks of frequent, compulsive sex in which "pussy gets popped like acne". It's a simile that stings just as much as it is sickens, given the setting and the age of most of the characters.
As hip-hop language and attitude increasingly start to dominate the film and Hittman spends more and more time with blunt-smoking, white trash wannabe rappers, who think nothing of watching porn at full volume while Lila is hanging out with them, shock tatics take over from the visually probing, European style character essay that came before them. While the uncertainty and yearning of Lila's private pains are psychodynamically evocative, the dunderheaded object of her affection who later assumes the film's focus is decidedly less so. A scene in which Lila lowers herself to be spanked with a paddle in front of Sammy and his friends pointedly cuts to her dog Coffee turning away in disgust and you might very well do the same. While my own feelings towards the film were doing a similar about face at this point, far from glamourizing the debasing misogyny of these layabouts, the inclusion of appalled canine reaction shots would seem to suggest Hittman herself wouldn't be so generous as to call these boys animals, as to do so would be an insult to animals in general.
It's much more than just another "ironic indie title alert", but in the end, It Felt Like Love feels like anything but.
It Felt Like Love plays the Sundance NEXT WEEKEND festival, August 10th and 11th. Details can be found here. It was released in France July 17th. US and UK theatrical release dates are still pending.