If I had gone to a theater last weekend, I would have seen this movie. It concerns a pregnant teenager’s trip to New York City with her cousin to arrange an abortion that would have required parental consent in the small Pennsylvania town where the girls live.
Effectively, it observes the two almost-adults coping as their daylong journey expands to three days in a city they do not know. Critics love this movie, but some want to see its story as a rebuke to “toxic masculinity” or a call to activism for preserving abortion rights in “Trump-era America.”
That all may be true, but I’m pretty sure it misreads the more personal aspect that Eliza Hittman, the filmmaker, wants to explore. Her films to date have been observations of adolescents adrift and coming to grips with their sexuality — lonely journeys that parents perceive only dimly if at all.
Instead of going to the theater, I streamed Hittman’s two earlier releases at home. So let’s talk about those.
It Felt Like Love, 2013
This deliberately mis-titled story concerns 14-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti) who wants to be more like her sexually experienced friend, 16-year-old Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni,) and less like her pleasant 12-year-old neighbor, Nate (Case Prime,) who seems more like a little boy.
Lila stands at the beach shore while Chiara’s current boyfriend plays with her in the water. Lila is there when the two use their hands to pleasure each other and when the boyfriend tells Chiara she is too far ahead — too sexually experienced — for him. Lila is not around when the boyfriend breaks up with Chiara. Lila had seen their relationship as enduring love, while Lila’s father, a widower, was confident that it was not.
Wistful Lila sets her sights on Sammy (Ronen Rosenstein,) a randy college boy who is not interested in her. But Lila persists. She makes up stories about encounters with Sammy and shares them with her friends. Her yearning and awkwardness are evident.
Things happen — not romantic things — and eventually Lila begins to catch up with Chiara.
This movie is not a series of plot events but rather the study of a girl who is making up her life as she goes along. The acting, almost entirely by a bunch of new actors and especially Piersanti, is so believable that it feels absolutely true — and more than a little sad.
Beach Rats, 2017
Like the first film, this one is set in outer Brooklyn. It revisits the same theme but with a male character, Frankie (Harris Dickinson,) who is a few years older than Lila but also is coming to terms, again awkwardly, with his sexuality.
In this case, Frankie’s sexual preference is for men. He takes pictures of his buff physique, posts the photos on gay websites, and then he meets and has sex with older men who find him attractive. He craves their attention.
Meanwhile, he hangs out with bloke friends who know nothing about this part of his life, which he also hides from his mother and sister. (His very sick father dies during the course of the movie.)
Frankie meets an attractive young woman, whom he likes and who is appropriate for him by his friends’ estimation. When asked by her and and by the men he meets, he says, “I don’t know what I like.” It’s denial, but understandable in his situation.
Like Lila in the earlier movie, Frankie tries to avoid facing his desires by getting drunk and/or high. When sober, again like Lila, he remains conflicted but decides to act.
The resolution, if in fact it is one, has Frankie returning to Coney Island, the place he visited with his friends early in the film.
As in the 2013 movie, the lead character, first-timer Dickinson, turns in a performance that is utterly convincing if not easy to watch.
This filmmaker, a Brooklyn native, wrote and directed the current Never Sometimes Often Always film that had the misfortune to be released as Americans decided to stay home and avoid Covid 19 exposure. The movie opened Friday on thousands of screens, but, not surprisingly, sales were weak.
It’s interesting that the film received a PG-13 rating when it deals unflinchingly with disturbing and mature matters of adolescent sex while cartoon-like shoot-em-ups are rated R and deemed appropriate only for viewers who are 18 or older.
Hittman’s work is original and regarded highly within its industry, as is that of her cinematographer, Hélène Louvart, who did the camera work on the two later films.
But movies like Hittman’s are challenging in the same way that serious literature is more challenging than the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy, which is easier to digest and much more profitable.
If Ms. Hittman’s new film finds an audience, it may consist more of people interested in political pro-choice themes than in the situation the filmmaker most wanted to explore — the coping of two young women in a desperate situation.