by Hannah Benson | October 4, 2020
Coming-of-age films and shows typically feature confident teens pushing boundaries and forging a path for themselves. Ferris Bueller dances on a parade float, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson flings herself from a car, and the teens in Euphoria do molly at a carnival. Unlike the films I grew up with, American filmmaker Eliza Hittman’s three feature films center on teens that come of age quietly. It Felt Like Love (2013), Beach Rats (2017), and Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) are bleak, hyperrealistic portraits of working class adolescence where coming of age is less like a discovery of the self and more an entryway into the systemic and cultural violence that plagues American life.
It Felt Like Love centers on Lila (Gina Piersanti) as she spends the summer a third wheel to her friend Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) and her boyfriend. Constantly watching the two make out at the beach, Lila starts to seek out her own sexual experiences as a way of fitting in. While Lila’s desires are entirely normal, it is painful to watch her sunscreen covered, childlike face. Mostly, I am scared for any young woman struggling to see herself as desirable because there is nearly always a man nearby ready to take advantage.
At the beach, she meets college student Sammy (Ronen Rubenstein) who will “sleep with anyone.” Lila sees this is her chance and relentlessly pursues him. While Sammy initially does not seem interested, he lets her hang around. It is clear that Lila is under 18. While she claims to be older, it is hard to believe Sammy and his friends are unable to see how young she is. Unfortunately, as they continue to let her hang around, Lila becomes a victim in a situation that is the result of the relentless sexualization of teenage girls and the pressure one feels to fit in as a teenager.
Lila is often silent, an observer of teen life, and Hittman’s aesthetic is equally understated. The camera (cinematography by Sean Porter) observes Lila in a similar way she observes others, lingering on her hair blowing as she sits in front of a fan on a hot summer day. Hittman often zooms in on parts of characters’ bodies like it’s Lila’s eyes becoming fixated on Chiara and her boyfriend as she seeks to understand and mimic the same behavior.
As Lila continues to pursue Sammy, she ends up hanging out with his friends. She sits silently in her seat as the guys play video games and watch porn together. Lila, desperate to be seen as a grown up, brags that she could do better than the woman in the video. The guys laugh at her, further proving that they know exactly how old she is and exactly what they are doing to her. The most painful aspect of Lila’s journey in this film is how desperate she is for her neglectful father’s attention. After passing out in Sammy’s bed at a party, Lila comes home late the next morning and tries to make her father angry by claiming she’s been with a boy. In reality, she slept in Sammy’s bed with the hopes he would assume they slept together the night before. Neither Sammy nor her father believe her, bringing her to a breaking point. As hard as Lila tries, neither Chiara, Sammy, nor her father react to the cry for help that her behavior truly is.
The realization that Lila is left to fend for herself is the core of Hittman’s work. Instead of having a mother around or a supportive father, Lila is left alone to understand sex and attraction in a world that preys upon girls. By the end of the film, she appears completely drained.
Hittman’s second feature, Beach Rats, is in many ways a companion piece to It Felt Like Love. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is the kind of guy that would hang out with Sammy, dressed in the same singlets and inhabiting the same mannerisms, playing along with the performance of American masculinity. Closeted, Frankie spends time alone in his basement chatting with random men online, meeting up with them near the beach in the darkness of night. He compartmentalizes his life, refusing to identify as gay by dating Simone (Madeline Weinstein), and primarly sleeping with older men who are less likely to know people in his life. With a terminally ill father, Frankie is missing a father figure in his life during these crucial years. Unlike Lila’s distant father, Frankie’s mother asks too many questions about his life, making him feel trapped. Unable to cope, he often steals his father’s painkillers and spends most of time at the boardwalk in Brooklyn with his friends.
Frankie is great at passing as straight, moving with a convincing enough swagger in his step. When he meets up with Jeremy, a guy from online who is less stereotypically masculine, Frankie seems threatened by the fact that Jeremy is comfortable in his skin. Since it is less likely Jeremy would be able to pass as straight, he does not have much choice, while Frankie could spend a lifetime convincingly closeted. Dickinson’s performance is amazingly nuanced. Spare in dialogue, he spends much of the film looking back at the camera with his piercing blue eyes portraying all the fear stirring within.
Hittman films Frankie and his friends’ bodies up close, abs shining with sweat as they lie in the sun and play handball. While close-ups in It Felt Like Love mirrored Lila’s curiosity, the intense focus on the male body, here, is what haunts Frankie. He spends so much time denying his nature and averting his gaze from what the camera continually focuses on. Lila and Frankie are both searching for fulfillment of their desires in a world where women and gay men regularly face deep, cultural, and systemic violence.
Hittman’s work analyzes the strict gender roles present in working class American life. In Hittman’s most recent film, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, she leaves New York for the first time to witness the journey of a teen going to the city. Teenage protagonist Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is at perhaps her most vocal when we meet her, singing in the school talent show, “He makes me do things I don’t want to do. He makes me say things I don’t want to day. And though I try to break away, I know I can’t stop saying I adore him, can’t stop doing things for him.” Her performance is soon interrupted by a guy in the audience yelling “Slut!” Later at dinner, Autumn is silent and refuses to eat.
The real journey begins when Autumn discovers she is pregnant, and finds out New York City is the
closest place to Pennylvania she can receive an abortion without parental consent. She and her cousin (Talia Ryder) steal money from their creepy boss and board a bus to the city. Instead of being a freeing place, the city becomes an epicenter of American obstacles. As the girls struggle to afford food, transportation, and healthcare, I watched anxiously, aware that whatever money they managed to get is no match for Manhattan.
Autumn’s story reflects how many women experience the United States healthcare system. Initially lied to about how far along she was, Autumn is told she has to go to a specific center to receive treatment because she is too far along for the in-clinic procedure. It is terrible to see a young woman led astray, further endangering her health, because of the conservative woman center’s political agenda.
The most striking scene in the film comes before Autumn’s abortion. A counselor asks her required questions to which she must respond with “Never, rarely, sometimes, or always.” When asked if she has ever been forced to have sex or been physically harmed by a partner, her face completely falls apart and all she has not said for the entire film leaves her body in the form of tears. The counselor, all too used to this, comforts her while still trying to finish the questionnaire. Even when a woman finds proper care, the experience is still fraught with pain. Most difficult is the repetition of the titular phrase, forcing Autumn to calculate again and again the distance between always and sometimes.
Eliza Hittman’s films, at times hard to watch, are delicate and important portraits of American life. Her introverted teens, trying to find a place in the world, often fall victim to the violence of adult life. While my life does not mirror those of the characters in Hittman’s films, her work comforts me as I see parts of myself in their silence, and am grateful for their honesty. As fun and important as the more outgoing teen films are, Eliza Hittman’s work serves as cautionary tales for a culture that forces young people to grow up much too fast.