Gina Piersanti in 'It Felt Like Love'
Gina Piersanti in 'It Felt Like Love'

Sexual awakening is common enough in coming-of-age films, particularly those about adolescent girls. But Eliza Hittman’s observant film “It Felt Like Love” isn’t just about sexual awakening -- it’s about feeling the pressure to want a sex life.

Lila (Gina Piersanti) is a 14-year-old living in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. She spends her summer on the beach with her more physically developed and more sexually adventurous friend, Chiara, who seems to have a new “serious” boyfriend every couple of weeks. (Having once been a 14-year-old girl with friends I deemed prettier than me and who had no problem attracting boys while I watched from the sidelines, I can tell you it doesn’t do wonders for your self-esteem. You wonder what’s wrong with you. You wish things would speed up already.)

It Felt Like Love

At any rate, Lila takes it into her own hands to pursue an older guy, Sammy -- college age -- after she overhears the rather unflattering information that he’s a “douchebag who’ll sleep with anyone.” It’s hard to tell exactly how much interest Lila has in Sammy. She certainly lusts after his fit and tattooed physique, usually adorned in some afterthought of a tanktop. But her pursuit of Sammy -- which puts her in situations both amusing and unsettling -- is apparently more about cred than actual sexual appetite. “I spent the night with a guy,” she boasts to her middle-school neighbor, even though she didn’t spend the night in the typical way that phrase implies.

First-time feature filmmaker Hittman, working with the talented DP Sean Porter (“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”), has a natural way with visuals that communicates the curiosity running rabid through the blood of summer-idle teenagers. The shots in the film graze the shoulders, hands, biceps and lower backs of its subjects as often as their faces, as if to ask, “What is this strange, hot new world?”

Hittman also nails the culture of blue-collar Brooklyn, with naturalistic actors who seem plucked from the streets of the neighborhood as opposed to auditioned. (On that note, Piersanti, who is quite good, did strike me as a tad out of place -- her neutral accent and diction didn’t gel with those around her.) A scene at Chiara’s sparkly, banal Sweet Sixteen birthday party, complete with a candle-lighting ceremony and dance-along, was spot-on.

And, with the exception of the oddly stylistic final sequence, the film hardly makes a misstep, delivering one quiet scene after another that serve as an emotional time capsule back to the ninth grade. At a key moment in the film, Lila goes to the beach at night, letting the dark waves wash up to her knees. She’s been on that beach before, during daylight hours with childish sunscreen coating her face. But there’s no going back.

"It Felt Like Love" hits theaters in New York on March 21, and Los Angeles March 28, via Variance Films.