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Female sexual awakening in film is often tied to the sexual awakening or midlife crisis of a male lead character, the woman's own growth essentially serving as context for the man's own character growth. Very rarely does a woman's own sexual awakening become the focus of the story, and even rarer is the case when it leads to a touching characterization rather than a leering one. Eliza Hittman's It Felt Like Love, however, with its exploration of lead character Lila's quest for sex during a hot summer, manages to deftly thread that needle.
The focus on Lila herself, rather than viewing her growing interest in sex from the perspective of someone she may be interested in, is key to this. Throughout the movie, Lila spends any length of time with a limited number of people, only one of whom is a woman, her friend Chiara. The latter's self-confidence shines through particularly in her interactions with Lila, and it's completely understandable why Lila would want to emulate her. This becomes especially stark with the realization that Lila's mother is deceased, as well as the fact that Chiara looks out for Lila as much as possible, scheduling Planned Parenthood meetings for her and bringing her along to various places Chiara visits with her boyfriend. Chiara's relationship with her boyfriend is a near-ubiquitous aspect of her, as she is rarely seen without either of her two partners over the course of the film. Lila's desire to emulate Chiara extending to wanting a seemingly romantic relationship with someone, which in Chiara's case seems to involve a heavy sexual component, makes perfect sense in light of this.
But while Lila's growing interest in sex makes sense simply from watching her observe Chiara, the movie also effectively illustrates what sex represents for Lila. In many ways, sex and love are clearly intertwined for her, and it represents an upside to the adulthood that is clearly foisted on her at home. The first interaction she has with her father paints a stark picture, as he chastises her for not going out and buying dog food for their mutual pet, as she knows where the money is. The responsibilities of adulthood are clearly being foisted on her, and her desire to get a taste of one of the perks is a natural extension from that.
But most of all, the intertwining of sex and love in Lila's mind drives her desire to find a partner. The focus on the relationship between Chiara and Patrick, her boyfriend at the beginning of the film, is never overwhelming, but Hittman does an excellent job of not only filling in the details, but of presenting it as Lila sees it. The abrupt breakup between the duo is as jarring to Lila as it is to the audience, even though the relationship-shattering blow is delivered in a preceding scene. Lila's own futile attempts to get her neighbor to touch her only serve to exacerbate this, as he seemingly only shows an interest in her stories when she talks about sex; the same thing happens in a subsequent scene with Sammy's friends. The painting of sex as the only way she can see to connect with people outside her immediate circle is very telling, and key to what's driving Lila's desire for sex.
Despite all this, however, Hittman never condones the actions Lila takes or the lengths she goes to. Late in the film, Lila undresses and lies down next to an already-asleep Sammy after a party, giving him, and others, the impression that they slept together in the morning. Lila's purposeful ambiguity about this action is never portrayed as correct, and a number of characters, including Sammy himself, question her on this action. The movie manages to remain sympathetic to all the characters, and Sammy's particularly brutal rejection of Lila is an action that both is understandable and emotionally impactful in the right way.
Of course, the deft manner in which Hittman handles Lila's story and the fleshing out of her character and motivations for seeking out sex would not land so effectively if other aspects of the movie were not working in tandem. The cinematography is a particularly important aspect, as these kinds of stories often go hand in hand with a leering lens that sexualizes the performers more often than not. This movie, however, manages to avoid that pitfall, focusing on touch over body parts, lingering on how Lila perceives intimacy through the viewpoint of someone whose only exposure is through other couples. Similarly, the differences in how Lila and Chiara dress displays the difference in the comfort levels each have towards their body starkly. The opening scenes put Lila in a one-piece bathing suit next to Chiara's bikini, and this difference in the outfits each chooses is evident throughout, to the point where Lila tries to emulate Chiara's dressing style after sleeping next to Sammy. This seemingly simple act says a lot about the importance Lila puts on the perception of being sexually active, and why she's spent the whole movie pursuing it.
Hittman's handling of budding female sexuality in this film is something many other filmmakers can take cues from, as in the process of handing a subject matter whose execution has been iffy in other hands, she manages to avoid many of the pitfalls others fall into. Making Lila a fully fleshed out character whose motivations for seeking out sex are made clear throughout the film goes a long way towards turning this from a potentially exploitative film into a touching story about a woman trying to navigate the road to adulthood. Nuance is key in this story, and Hittman's ability to inject plenty of it in It Felt Like Love is what makes the movie particularly successful.