Hey, Barbecutie

#52filmsbywomen 3 – It Felt Like Love

Posted on: February 21, 2016

it felt like love

No. 3 – It Felt Like Love (Eliza Hittman, 2013)

The budding sexuality of teenage girls is always an alluring prospect in media, but the reality is often a holy mess. Teenage girls are supposed to have an unquenchable spring of seductive powers. How often do we see books, soap plots, newspaper comment sections, full of accusations, of an honourable man felled by an unrepentant Lolita, just now trying out the limits of her power? As though their youth and beauty comes automatically with knowledge of control, the belief that they are invincible and irresistible, and all men, and the world, can be theirs.

I’m not sure why society seems to think that is the case. Being a teenage girl is strange, messy and frightening. They have no more control over their sexual appeal than they have over other people’s desire towards them, and more often are victims of this desire. But more insidious is the image fed to teenage girls, that nothing defines their identity more than the appreciation of other people. We struggle to live up to impossible visions of celebrities, try to be beautiful, try to earn the admiration of those around us, try to survive the physical and emotional viscera of puberty, get told our clothes are too revealing, get told our clothes are too dowdy, learn we are too prudish when we don’t put out, find out if we were attacked that we led him on. Teenage girls know what they are doing, we’re told. Though I certainly didn’t then. I barely do now.

Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love challenges the conception of the teenage honeytrap, confident in her sexual prowess as though it’s something inherent within. Lila, fourteen, feels plain and juvenile, especially next to her outwardly confident and self-possessed friend Chiara. They spend their summer at the beach where Lila, a sunscreen-coated third wheel, witnesses the good and bad of Chiara and future guido Patrick’s courtship, their raw, seemingly endless sexuality, the paranoia and fights. But still she wants what they have. She is an observer for much of the film, seeing the young people around her falling in lust and exploring their sexual desires, and yet that aspect of her life still seems unattainable for her. She is constantly framed outside locked doors, across fences, or outside rooms where the scene’s key action is taking place, watching, listening, learning about what seems to come so effortlessly to everyone else, but leaves her in psychic turmoil. Even Nate, her younger neighbour and confidante, playfully sprays a girl his age with a hose, a beginner’s guide to flirting.

Lila’s first steps into her sexual identity are all echoes of Chiara’s behaviour. She quotes Chiara’s experiences of oral sex as though they are her own. She gets Chiara to dye her hair, a similar red to her older friend (though Chiara is hesitant, admiring Lila’s natural colour, suggesting that as much as Lila envies her maturity, Chiara is equally nostalgic for what she has left behind). And after Patrick accuses Chaira of hooking up with Sammy, a college boy who “fucks anything that moves”, Lila becomes interested. Lila goes to Sammy’s job, awkwardly flirts with him, turns up at his house, interrupts a boys’ night of weed and porn, putting on an unconvincing façade of confidence, announcing that she considered working in porn because she heard the pay was good.

Throughout the film, Lila’s idealised version of sex and adulthood is constantly undermined by the grim reality, often in the most humiliating way. Trying to impress Sammy with the illusion of her sexual adventurousness, she allows his friend Devon to spank her with a ping pong paddle, her face registering pain, confusion and regret with each strike. At another visit, after Sammy has grown bored of her, Devon dares her to suck all their dicks, and each pull down their trousers as she kneels before them, with Sammy goading her about how she hasn’t made him hard. It is the most brutal of the indignities she experiences, although perhaps the cold awakening and the deglamourising, of Sammy and of sex itself, is essential for her to learn.

Early on, Lila joins a dance rehearsal, their routine aggressive and erotic, almost uncomfortable to watch. Lila hangs back, slower, less conviction in her writhing and thrusting moves, eventually stoppings altogether to observe the others. The girls pause to preen, posing in the mirrors, stretching, playing with their hair, admiring and critiquing their bodies. But the boys’ bodies are equally, if not more fetishised, with the camera lingering over hard pecs and abs, tattoos, nipples and tans. And for all the idealised perceptions of Chiara – she is beautiful, older, desired and experienced, with a wealthy family who love her and throw her a lavish sweet sixteen party – she too is victim to expectations, as Patrick berates her for speaking to other guys, and condemns her for having been with more people than him. Only three, as she insists, but he tells her that three is a lot, when you think about it. One key to Hittman’s film is that it doesn’t forget that, for all Lila’s insecurities and social pressures on teenage girls, there is equal pressure and expectation on teenage boys. Sammy could equally be accused of leading Lila on (a claim usually thrown at girls), and Lila acting like a stalker (a supposedly masculine reaction to being dumped).

A more unsettling aspect of It Felt Like Love is Lila’s isolation from society. Late in the film, we learn her mother died of cancer, and it is clear throughout that her father has dialled out of existence, seemingly unemployed, disinterested in housekeeping, and openly admitting how pointless it is to care what Lila does with her time, assuming she would do what she wanted regardless of his opinion. It is cliché to look at what the absence of a mother and the distance of a father does to a teenage girl’s ability to navigate through relationships, but there is a sense in the film that Lila longs for guidance. After a failed seduction of Sammy, where he fell asleep drunk and she stripped and slept beside him, in the hopes he would think they had slept together, Lila meanders home in the early morning light, and stops outside her door to speak to Nate. She’s stayed out all night and her dad’s going to kill her. Call the cops if you hear screaming, she says. On entering, her dad drinks coffee in the kitchen, unimpressed, but unconcerned. Later, she heads to Sammy’s work hoping to reconnect. My dad freaked out, she tells him. It’s one thing to perform your sexual experience. It’s another to perform your place in the world.

 

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