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No. 11 –Evolution (Lucile Hadžihalilovic, 2015)

At last, a mere five months into my project, I put my money where my blog is and saw a film directed by a woman in an actual, honest-to-God cinemateque. It had additional resonance for me in that it was a film I was planning to see at last year’s London Film Festival, before I decided I was both too poor and too lazy to fight for tickets.(The LFF facebook page will tell you this sort of thing is war.) But Evolution was not the film I was expecting. The vague synopses fail to convey the levels of mystery and Cronenbergian strangeness that the film presents, but that was by necessity. How to describe this film?  “A boy discovers sea monsters, sort of” doesn’t quite cover it. Evolution doesn’t revolve around a mid-narrative twist, but rather every step subverts what you’ve seen before, building up an eerie atmosphere that envelopes you like the seawater that encroaches on every frame. This is an odd one, and all the better for it.

Nicolas lives in an isolated village by the sea with his mother. The other inhabitants are also boys, also living with single mothers, also living oddly sterile, primitive lives – no schooling, no society, no purpose, just days spent on the black sand and in the water. While swimming, Nicolas sees the body of a boy his age, a red starfish resting on his stomach. His mother insists he was mistaken, but Nicolas’ suspicion is piqued. But rather than a murder mystery, we are gradually led down a different path. The audience can notice little things that seem off – Nicolas secretly draws a ferris wheel in a notebook, suggesting a life before the seclusion of the island. His mother routinely feeds him spoonfuls of iodine-blue medicine, insisting boys need it for the illness of adolescence. Nicolas cuts his hand on coral, and is stitched up by a nurse using a fishing hook. Nothing is quite right here. Nicolas sneaks out at night to follow his mother and the other women, all strangely Vermeer-esque and eyebrowless with waxy skin and strange dark eyes, and finds them writhing naked on the beach, limbs intermingling like some great tentacled beast. Then he catches sight of a line of suction cups on his mother’s back. But just as the film seems to go down a body snatchers-esque route (they are like us but they are not us), Nicolas is taken away to a hospital.

At the hospital, Nicolas and his fellow patients endure injections, incisions, and imprisonment, given under no more information than the all-female staff’s assertions that the boys are sick. They are kept in a dark, windowless ward, where water dribbles down the green-painted walls and the boys gradually disappear. The nurse who stitched Nicolas up grows fond of him, sneaking him a pencil and asking him to explain his drawings as the objects are unfamiliar to her. Nicolas tries sneaking out of the ward but his explorations only bring more uncertainty, discovering a cupboard full of sea creatures and embryos in glass jars, the nurses watching footage of a human caesarean section with fascination and confusion, and encountering one of his friends shackled in a floatation tank, something feeding at his abdomen. Then Nicolas’ ultrasound shows a heartbeat.

Women have spent much of the past fifty years rewriting folklore, from the work of Angela Carter and Marina Warner to Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard and Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood. It has even cracked Hollywood to some extent, allusions and reinterpretations like Brave and Maleficient (which was directed by a man so I don’t have the opportunity to tell you what a mess that film is but trust me, it’s all over the show). Hadžihalilovic’s film draws on fairytale tropes – the hero’s deceptive parentage, the dangerous stepmother, curious children in danger – but gradually delves into the realms of body horror. And what is more horrifying to us than the biology of women? Evolution explores the idea of maternity by forcing Nicolas, into a female puberty, perverting the idea of pregnancy, motherhood and the family structure. Or at least it does when you think about it. When you watch it, when the film washes over you like waves, the film is a suffocating, damp nightmare, eerily calm but with a rumbling sense of dread building throughout, until we come to expect a John-Hurt-in-Alien moment, and instead receive something more emotional and delicate. Hadžihalilovic has a light touch, neither seeking to explain much of what’s happening on screen, nor compel the audience to vomit in the aisles. The atmosphere is creepy rather than repugnant, although that does depend on your deep-seated psychological terror of penetration, puberty and pregnancy. You can imagine the fun a horror director might have had with this script, but I’m grateful for Hadžihalilovic’s more ambiguous approach, which made the film more memorable for how it made you feel, rather than what you saw on screen.


toucy feely
No. 10 –Touchy Feely (Lynn Shelton, 2013)

Modern American independent cinema had a creative peak a few years back, and has hit a downturn in recent times. It’s become almost clichéd, these tiny, intimate stories of people and lives and deceptively insignificant occurrences, the short story to the studio’s epics, are now familiar rather than fresh. When did I start to roll my eyes at “quirky” rather than recognise it as shorthand for my type of film? (I don’t know exactly, but I can’t help but think Garden State was involved.) Mumblecore transformed so swiftly from the future of independent cinema to a shorthand criticism that we barely had a chance to make up our own minds. And yet the Mumblecore movement – characterised by ultra-naturalistic performances and dialogue, and a DIY, digital aesthetic – has proved more resilient than expected. The movement’s figures have managed to find a foothold in Hollywood, such as Mumblecore’s most iconic figurehead, Greta Gerwig, with a Golden Globe-nominated turn in Frances Ha, and, uhh, the Russell Brand remake of Arthur, and the Duplass brothers’ regular appearances in comedies like The League, Transparent and The Mindy Project. The movement’s characteristics have even slipped into big event films. Every time a Marvel film pauses for some character-building small talk, that’s the independent spirit shining through.

Lynn Shelton has been one of the most productive of the Mumblecore survivors, augmenting her film work with episodes of respected television like Master Of None and Mad Men, yet producing roughly a feature a year. Touchy Feely is initially fairly typical of Mumblecore output, focusing on personal relationships in a lowkey way, before adding a dash of surreal spirituality. Rosemarie DeWitt is Abby, a masseuse who develops a revulsion of human contact, coinciding with her boyfriend’s attempts to propel their relationship into something more settled. Meanwhile her dentist brother (an impressive Josh Pais) appears to display healing powers which boost the fortunes of his failing practise. Then they both take ecstasy. It’s a film full of plot but little action. Even with the high concept narrative, not a lot happens. Shelton now draws enough prestige to attract an impressive cast – Ellen Page, Scoot McNairy, Ron Livingston – but their roles are fairly incidental and I wonder what attracted them aside from the chance to be in a Lynn Shelton film. Only Alison Janney gets to make an impact as Abby’s earthy boss Bronwyn, but then this is Allison Janney we’re talking about.

The injection of magical elements into an almost-aggressively realistic set up is a technique I love, and one that has a lot of potential as a plot synopsis. Though Shelton’s film is as beautifully observed as ever, it skews almost too close to reality, with the characters taking a wait-and-see approach to the bizarre situation, and as such the film seems to stop dead as soon as the set up is established. While it allows for some beautiful shots – Shelton punctuates Abby’s scenes with extreme close-ups of human skin, looking like an alien landscape – the film itself is meandering to the point of feeling like a waste. I wish Shelton’s film allowed itself a bit of the wit and energy that it has in its title.



No. 8 – Desperately Seeking Susan(Susan Seidelman, 1985)

I felt reasonably confident of what Desperately Seeking Susan was about. Some films you don’t need to see to have their number – Dirty Dancing won’t put Baby in the corner, Lethal Weapon’s too old for this shit. And Desperately Seeking Susan sees Madonna from off of the 80s dancing into Rosanna Arquette’s dreary life and shaking things up with wardrobe montages and sassy soundbites. Instead, it turns out that the lead characters in this pop-feminism don’t actually meet until late, late in the film, and only by the grace of the convoluted plot become friends rather than enemies, given that they end up sharing each other’s identities and, to some extent, beds.

Desperately Seeking Susan is totally nutty. Set in a New York where Douglas Sirk-style housewives follow newspaper announcements with the same vigour as soap operas. Roberta, bored and mostly alone apart from Julia Child, eagerly reads updates on the mysterious Susan, a free spirit who can only be reached through the personals ads. In a feeble attempt to sum up the plot, I’ll say Roberta ends up following Susan around town, buying her distinctive jacket from a thrift store, finding a locker key with Susan’s belongings, arranging to meet Susan to return it, suffering a head injury and being mistaken for Susan, and believing she must be Susan herself.  If there’s one thing an 80s comedy loves, it’s an amnesia plotline. But that’s not even including the murder by defenestration, the stolen Egyptian earrings, and the magician searching for a new assistant. If you’re confused now, imagine how long I’ve been googling to remind myself of the different plot lines.

I suppose my disappointment is rooted in my strong impression of the sort of film it was going to be. This is a) dangerous and b) my fault, and can result in occasions like the Crimson Peak incident (a whole separate blog post). But I was looking forward to a Thelma and Louise-esque ballad of sisterhood, with less homicide and more and cut off shirts. I wanted a slightly subversive, day-glo jaunt around contemporary NYC, punk haunts and vintage stores, club nights and adventure. And there is that, some of that, a bit of that, but it just drowns under the weight of the plot. The way to survive over-plotted movies is to sit back and just take in the atmosphere (I’m thinking basically any attempt to translate Raymond Chandler), but Desperately Seeking Susan can’t sit still long enough to allow you to take the opportunity. This film should have the merest sliver of a story. But can we really complain when an 80s studio film is too high-concept? This is the era that put robots in Rocky films.

More high-minded critics see this film as a remake of Celine And Julie Go Boating, which I think it precarious but possible. But this highlights precisely my issue with Seidelman’s film. Celine And Julie Go Boating is preposterous nonsense, but hung on the core of the strong friendship between the two main characters, building a good will that means we’re reading to follow them into all their adventures. It is subversive and naughty. Desperately Seeking Susan’s wackiness is based almost entirely in fashion. The opening credits follow Roberta as she is manicured and primped in a beauty salon, later followed by Susan’s low-key rinsing in the station bathroom. Susan abandons her distinctive jacket in exchange for studded boots, and Roberta can’t resist buying it, looking great in New York but out of place in her fancy home. “You bought a used jacket?” her husband asks, “what are we, poor?” Roberta’s attempts to mimic Susan are too successful, resulting in the mistaken identity and the amnesia, and the stint in the magic club. Roberta is trying on Susan’s skin. Susan ‘s wild fashion feels as comfortable in Roberta’s bourgeois suburban home as Roberta’s attempt stuck out. Even the film’s attempts at depth all centre around surface concepts.

Desperately Seeking Susan was a commercial hit and warmly received by critics. Rosanna Arquette won a BAFTA (in the supporting category, oddly enough) and it has remained a cult hit ever since. So where did Susan Seidelman go? She directed a few more knockabout 80s films, worked sporadically in television and made an Oscar nominated short. For all my hesitations about Desperately Seeking Susan, Seidelman does a fine job making a distinctive film, and it’s a shame she hasn’t yet enjoyed a similar opportunity. There’s always room for style in cinema, so long someone’s there to edit down the script.


No. 6 – The Sisterhood Of Night (Caryn Waechter, 2014)


The Sisterhood Of Night has a dreamy, ethereal tone that I would have eaten up as a teenage girl. Unfortunately, I’m old as balls now, so I couldn’t help being shaken out of reverie by the occasional spotty moments. But I would still mark this down as a sweet film for teenagers to watch, one of those noble attempts of filmmakers to understand and depict contemporary teenage girls, but there’s something elusive and ephemeral about those girls, something that’s nearly impossible to capture with any accuracy. By the time you think you have them figured out, they’ve grown up and gone, and the next group appear with a new language and set of references and dreams. The Sisterhood Of Night does an honourable job, and yet something is missing. Which, for a film which attempts to do SO much, is a shame.

The film is told in a mix of flashbacks and faux-documentary talking heads, in a way that is slightly muddled and confusing. It dives right into the battlegrounds of social media, where so many other films are reluctant to engage, because Robert McKee doesn’t explain how in Story. (Start noticing how many films involving someone losing / forgetting / breaking their mobile phone early on in a plot that would be easily solved with a quick call, and prepare to be infuriated by many, many horrors films and thrillers of the past fifteen years.) The film initially sets up a rivalry between Emily, a lonely blogger desperate to be part of the in-crowd, and Mary, an intriguing and charismatic student who decides to go quiet on social media. Mary then decides to start a secret society of girls, selected by invitation, with an aim that isn’t immediately clear. Emily follows the group out one night, and later writes a blog post outlining the abuse she suffers at the Sisterhood’s hands, starting something akin to a witchhunt that escalates throughout the town. The Sisterhood are sworn to secrecy, so refuse to comment, adding fuel to the fire.

At this point, the different story threads spiral out like a hydra, and never quite come together. A society of isolated teenagers echoes Joyce Carol Oates’ Foxfire (beautifully filmed by Laurent Cantet in 2012). The mass hysteria surrounding the group recalls The Falling by Carol Morley (which I’ll be watching within the next few weeks). Emily and Mary’s rivalry recalls any number of teen films. Other, more minor strands would have been an interesting primary forcus – Emily’s blog compels other girls to open up about the abuse they have suffered, Lavinia is vexed by her mother’s dating activities and her own emergent sexuality (she borrows a copy of The Joy Of Sex, a book which has not been read since 1976 but nice try, set designers) and is then brutally catfished by her schoolfriends, Catherine refuses to visit her sick mother since she lost her hair, school councillor Gordo Gambhir’s attempts to reach out to the Sisterhood led to him losing his job over a perceived inappropriate relationship with Mary. Any one of these storylines would have a place as the A story in a hammy after-school special, or a touching indie film. It is almost a shame to have them as such small plot points. The Sisterhood Of Night suffers from too many ideas and too much ambition – and that is an honourable way to fail.

But The Sisterhood Of Night has some unique aspects to it as well. This is a rare – and non-judgemental – depiction of a religious community. While it feeds into the mass panic, the focus is more on how the town is tightly-knit and aware of each other’s business, rather than mocking the theists. Likewise, it walks a fine line in the depiction of female sexuality. While Lavinia is shamed and mocked for her desires, the film treats her with more dignity – most films view as a cause for punishment, or the most emotional, moving moment of a woman’s life, and both are equally unrealistic interpretations. Mary’s relationship, another minor thread in the film, is treated sincerely but as an afterthought. She loses her virginity on her terms, and is happy with her decision, which remains private. Throughout the film, privacy and silence is a revolutionary act, particularly in a world of noise, where nothing goes unnoticed or unread by the people around you, and that itself is refreshing.




No. 5 – Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970)

The 1970s are considered a golden age of independent cinema in the US, with talents such as John Cassavettes, Robert Altman and Terrance Malick rising up to deliver a cinematic voice unique from the bastions of the classic Hollywood era. Yet this era is defiantly macho, as the dual narratives of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Robert Evan’s The Kid Stays In The Picture demonstrate. This was an era of drugs, defiance and ego, and one where the female voice was largely at the sidelines, if present at all.

Barbara Loden is not a name that would be dropped in the glamorous appraisals of this vital era in American cinema. Wanda was her only feature as director (she also wrote and starred) and, coming at the beginning of the decade, it made little impact on release, though it was warmly received in Europe. I could pontificate at length why an exploration of the interior life of a dissatisfied, lower class woman in contemporary America didn’t enjoy the acclaim and longevity of similarly meandering but male-focused pictures, but why bother? It’s nothing new. Social realism was for the boys. Women’s stories have rarely been their own to tell.

But Wanda is a compelling piece of cinema, and not just because of its proto-feminist credentials, its deserved place in the independent canon, or the mythology around Barbara Loden. The former model, Tony winner and mainstay of the Actors Studio had the misfortune to marry Elia Kazan and died of breast cancer by 1980, ensuring that Wanda was the crux of her legacy. Loden conceded that the film was semi-autobiographical, but it’s not hard to imagine many women seeing their lives at the time reflected in the passive, inscrutable Wanda, or would have, if they had seen the film.

Wanda is a unique protagonist from the off, arriving late to a court date where her divorce is finalised and she gives up parental rights to her young children. She demonstrates little emotion, at this point and throughout the film. She has little money, no job, and no plans. Even now, it would be unusual for a film to begin with the (female) lead renouncing her wifely and maternal duties and expect the audience to willingly follow the subsequent narrative without judgement, but Wanda gives no apologies and makes no concession to the viewer. At one point, she misplaces her wallet in the motel room, but shrugs it off, unperturbed. Mr Dennis, a bank thief who looks like a geography teacher, finds it and flicks through, finding photographs of Wanda’s children, a past life she is seemingly at peace with discarding. The film spends much of its time meandering along with Wanda as she bounces from café to bed to car with no particular aim. The plot unfurls so gradually it’s almost a surprise when it takes a turn into a kitchen sink Bonnie and Clyde when she accidentally hooks up with Mr Dennis.

Wanda feels startlingly contemporary, and has aged much better than a lot of 1970s independent cinema. The low key crime spree that emerges gives the film a lot of momentum that is missing in a lot of character pieces, and a much-needed boost just as the viewer starts to tire of its listless heroine. Wanda as a character is filled with the kind of ennui that is familiar and almost cliché in the independent cinema of this millennial, and while we are receptive and familiar with this type of protagonist now, it must have been surprising in 1970, when a female protagonist at all was a rarity, let alone one not beholden to society’s expectations. There are no attempts to seek the audience’s sympathy, nor raise their ire – Wanda simply is, and the audience’s reaction to her is irrelevant. Before her death, Loden was working on a second film, and it’s a real shame that we missed how her unique and prescient voice would evolve. She wrote:

“There’s so much I didn’t achieve, but I tried to be independent and to create my own way…otherwise, I would have become like Wanda, all my life just floating around.”




No. 4 – Middle Of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay, 2012)

In light of last week’s Oscars, it seemed apropos to look back at the work of Ava DuVernay, who is probably the most notable female director working at the moment, and also the origin of 2015’s #Oscarssowhite movement. With a year passing now, it seems inexcusable that a future classic like Selma eked out merely two nominations in a field that saw nominations for forgettable films as Unbroken, The Judge and American Sniper (a box office hit that I literally forgot existed). DuVernay herself has become a modern-day icon, in a way that has eluded her director peers such as Tom Hooper and Michel Hazanavicius, but the fact that Mattel has made a Barbie version of her has not diminished her into a mere image of a dreadlocked beauty in a director’s chair. The facts are clear: DuVernay is the most exciting director working in Hollywood right now. A mere three features into her career, her skill and significance is such that she will doubtless be present at many Oscar ceremonies in the future, and, most likely, at the podium herself.

DuVernay’s second film Middle Of Nowhere brought her one step closer to the mainstream. A Sundance success, it won multiple awards and nominations including a strong showing at the Independent Spirit Awards, centred around DuVernay’s writing and directing, and her excellent cast, led by the luminous Emayatzy Corinealdi as Ruby. Ruby is a determined young medical student putting her life on hold while she waits for her husband Derek to get out of prison (“five good years,” she makes him promise). As the years tick by and her family question what, precisely, she is waiting for, Ruby begins to question her husband’s commitment, and her own, in the face of the interest of bus driver Brian (David Oyelowo, later Selma’s Martin Luther King). To Ruby’s surprise, Brian doesn’t ask questions. He waits for people to confide, he tells her, and points out his ex used to complain about it. Ruby tentatively opens up to him, lets him into her life, then pulls away, still tied to Derek and the life she thought they were going to lead.

Middle Of Nowhere is an atmospheric and captivating character piece, focusing on 3 black women whose lives have stalled for various reasons, intentional or otherwise. If intersectionality teaches us anything, it’s that few groups are as ignored or misrepresented as the black woman. Ruby, her mother Ruth and sister Rosie, are not the finger-snapping, fiery and sassy women of Hollywood cinema, but real characters in a way that is so sorely lacking in the mainstream. It is a film that does not hold its audience’s hands, with much of the narrative left to implication, with DuVernay demonstrating a refreshing confidence in the intelligence of her viewers. These are women who are surviving, but struggling against external forces, and their own expectations for themselves. They are in each other’s lives, but each separate. The film’s thesis may be the loneliness of the black woman. Derek, an equally atypical depiction of the young black criminal, is more downtrodden and hopeless than deceitful, his sense of his own failure leading to more mistakes and betrayals, as though deliberately pushing away Ruby, a woman who stubbornly sees “we” where he sees their distance and isolation.

It is primarily a film of silence. We aren’t told the specifics of Derek’s crime (late in the film, Ruby concedes a single word “guns”), nor the prison fight that extends his sentence, or the nature of the sexual assault on the prison guard. We don’t know the cause of Rosie’s tension with her mother, though there is some suggestion that she was a tough parent. In a more textual way, we are told Ruby takes night shifts so she can stay home and not miss Derek’s calls, yet we hear many of his calls as answerphone messages. Voices are heard, but at a distance. Ruby and Rosie have a rare, open conversation about love, but find they can’t relate to each other, as Rosie admits she feels jealous of Ruby as, even though her husband is in prison, she still has a man thinking about her. Ruby doesn’t contradict this, though she doesn’t open up either. The key scene sees Ruth, played by the incredible Lorraine Toussaint, berate her daughters for their self-imposed isolation – why Ruby has given up her med school dreams, why Rosie refuses her help to care for her grandchild – and yet nothing is really resolved, Rosie leaving before the conversation can unveil any truths. “Why don’t you say anything?” she demands of her remaining daughter.

Ruby’s prison is one of silence. She is framed indoors, under harsh hospital lighting, or hiding at home from the daytime behind the gauze curtains which cover the windows. The film is filled with brief flashbacks out of time, further adding to the ambiguous nature of the narrative – are they Ruby’s memories or her dreams? In the end, Ruby’s voice is powerful when she wields it. An out of character outburst at Derek’s lawyer’s office achieves a desired compromise when it seems like his lawyer might drop his case. Similarly, she calmly, gently tells Derek that she will not spend the remainder of his imprisonment with him. The film ends with a letter to Derek in voiceover, emphasising the traps they all find themselves in, and Ruby’s determination not to be caught the same way. The scene is overlaid with shots of Ruby and Brian arm in arm (a memory, a fantasy, or a glimpse at Ruby’s future?) and of Ruby and Derek, washing dishes side by side (a memory, a fantasy, or a glimpse at Ruby’s future?), but ends with Ruby at the bus stop, alone, responding to a stranger’s greeting. The film’s resolution is ambiguous, but the film is impactful, and its atmosphere lingers for a long time after.

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.