Screenwriter Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith (10 Things I Hate About You) Talks Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love

One of 2014's best, this Brooklyn-set portrait of burgeoning female adolescent sexuality examines a moment of transition in a young girl's life.

Over the first two weeks of January, Talkhouse Film is running the “What We Missed” series, comprising pieces on notable movies from 2014 which were not previously covered, (almost) all of which were released prior to the launch of this site. — N.D.

It Felt Like Love feels like love… or rather, it feels like that dangerous, intoxicating, crush-as-obsession version of love that defines female teenage life. Eliza Hittman has made a beautiful, complete feature film debut that deserves to sit in the canon alongside some of the best movies about teenage girldom: My Summer of Love, Thirteen, Heavenly Creatures, Foxes, Smooth Talk, Little Darlings and The Virgin Suicides.

I discovered It Felt Like Love about a month ago, thanks to the suggestion of the brilliant Nick Dawson, and I was dazzled. I watched it in one fell swoop and felt like I was holding my breath the whole time. The story revolves around Lila (Gina Piersanti), an adolescent girl who’s an outsider in her own world. She’s got a sexy best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni), who is happy to let Lila play the perpetual third wheel, giving her a front-row seat to watch as Chiara kisses, fondles and presses flesh with whatever Boy Du Jour she’s fallen “in love with” that month. Lila’s got a sad single dad and a shitty apartment and a dog that eats out of the trashcan because they can’t afford dog food. But this isn’t to say Lila’s world is an ugly world — Hittman and her cinematographer Sean Porter shoot it gorgeously, capturing a part of Brooklyn that doesn’t get seen much. The landscapes are both natural and urban, trashy and scenic, dirty and pure… all like Lila herself.

Lila’s in a special kind of purgatory: age fourteen. She’s outgrowing girlhood but she’s not taken seriously as a woman yet. And oh does she want to prove that she can play with the big boys. And much like in the movie Kids, we see that life with the big boys isn’t all it’s cut out to be. With every promise ring, there’s an STD waiting around the corner, and with every cool party with older kids, there’s a douchebag who wants to show you his dick.

Lila’s curiosity is kindled when she sees Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein) walking on the beach. Sammy’s a tattooed, buff older guy with a bad rep. Sexual experience radiates off of him. Lila wants it, she wants him, and she wants him for one thing only. So begins her quest to “seduce” Sammy. She starts showing up at the pool hall where he works, she starts dropping by his apartment where he and his buddies are chilling… she basically begins the most awkward stalking sesh ever committed to celluloid. Sammy starts to, duh, get a little bit weirded out because Lila’s agenda is so blatantly obvious: she has no idea what the hell she’s doing but she wants to do it with him. As she explains to her neighbor who asks for more details about her “boyfriend” and their relationship: Its kind of better than a boyfriend. Its more exciting.

I can recall lots of movies in which a woman is the sexual aggressor — and often it means she’s a villain — but there aren’t many movies in which a teenage girl is the sexual aggressor (other than say, Angelina Jolie in any of those movies she acted in during her early twenties). That’s what makes this movie so unique and so real. Aiding the authenticity is the filmmaker’s delicate devotion to capturing how damn bittersweet growing up is. The movie nails all the awkward pink glitter of a sweet sixteen party but it also nails the moment when your best friend forces you to puke because you’ve had too much cheap booze to drink. It nails the moment when you wake up on the bathroom floor at a party and everyone has gone home. It nails the embarrassed pride of your first walk of shame. It nails the confusing humiliation of your first visit to the gyno.

Hittman comes at it all with a Morvern Callar-esque rawness, and in her young star Gina Piersanti, she finds her Samantha Morton. Piersanti is a fantastic actress who looks like the love child of Zoe Kazan and Emily Browning. She lends a wide-eyed zombie intensity to all of Lila’s pent-up yearning, to her desire to be beautiful and sophisticated, to her dream of connecting emotionally with someone.

As a story of obsessive romance, It Felt Like Love doesn’t pack the intensity of last year’s masterpiece Blue is the Warmest Color, but that’s because it really isn’t about love. It’s about the kabuki mask of womanhood — that special moment where you try it on for size and that moment when, once it fits, you realize it’s never coming off.

Kirsten Smith co-wrote Legally Blonde, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s the Man and The House Bunny. She’s directed two short films, both starring Anna Faris, and executive produced Whip It. Her latest project is The Expendabelles, the female-centric installment of The Expendables franchise. You can find her on Twitter at @kiwilovesyou.