Gina Piersanti, the unknown teenage lead of It Felt Like Love, possesses a faint resemblance to Hollywood scion starlet Zoe Kazan. (It’s mostly in the heart-shaped visage.) But there’s nothing movie-star glamorous about her performance in this starkly unsentimental coming-of-age drama. Exuding an insecurity common to youth, but paradoxically uncommon to young actors, Piersanti plays Lila, a 14-year-old Brooklyn dance student determined to expedite the whole growing-up process. Her best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), has started fooling around with a local lothario, and Lila—sensing the gap widening between them—wants to keep pace. But she’s plainly out of her element: Forced attempts at blithe sex talk (“He went down on me at the beach,” she tells a neighbor boy, sounding unsure of what that even means) betray a total lack of experience. Lila is a minor trying to fake her way into the majors, and Piersanti embodies her with such transparent self-consciousness—comfortably rendering the character’s visible discomfort—that she might as well have a scarlet “V” scrawled across her torso.
It Felt Like Love is the first feature from writer-director Eliza Hittman, who understands adolescence as a kind of audition for adulthood, wherein kids begin prepping themselves for the adventures of post-teenage life by parroting the language (and behavior) of their elders. Hittman also knows that, in the Information Age, these practice runs are happening earlier and earlier, and that girls like Lila are feeling pressured to rush headlong into a premature sexual awakening. Such insight makes It Felt Like Love a suitably sensitive portrait of waning youth, but it’s also a bit single-minded in its pursuit of harsh truths. Lila, for all the authentic awkwardness Piersanti breathes into her, is defined so entirely by her mission—embarked upon with an equal measure of anxiety and anticipation—that she never quite comes alive as a character. And that’s to say nothing of the predatory boys in her orbit, a real wolf pack of tattooed, shorthaired Larry Clark types. Lila cozies up to one of them (Ronen Rubinstein), but he’s basically indistinguishable from the others—Hittman’s pessimistic point, assumedly.
Filmed on the cheap, in subway cars and against crashing waves (the latter positioned, in the evocative opening shot, as a symbol of the emotional waters Lila will soon brave), It Felt Like Love has a roughhewn naturalism that occasionally shades into poetry. The lack of Brooklyn iconography creates the impression of an anonymous teenage wasteland, all deserted parks and shitty arcades. The handheld camera keeps close, its lens as intrusive as the prying eyes of Lila’s peers. It’s easy to be seduced by the loosely observational vibe of the movie, even as its tale of a shrinking violet struggling not to be a late bloomer fails to strike more than a single note of dismay. Will Lila complete her rite of passage? By the end, audiences may end up craving a more charitable, less dour study of teenage mating habits—one, like the less “realistic” Raising Victor Vargas, that doesn’t portend trauma for any sapling trying to blossom too soon.