Reviewed at Picturehouse Central, London. October 6, 2017 Written and directed by Eliza Hittman. Cinematography by Hélène Louvart. Editing by Scott Cummings and Joe Murphy. Running time: 98 minutes.
Beach Rats opens to the blinding light of a mobile phone flash, as Frankie captures shirtless selfies in front of a mirror post workout, his chest and abs on show, a baseball cap obscuring his face, magnifying his lips, chiselled cheekbones and sharp jawline.
Eliza Hittman’s second feature, inspired by a photo the writer-director stumbled upon on Facebook, shifts from the female-centred take on the loss of innocence fable of her debut It Felt Like Love to the sexual awakening of South Brooklyn teenager Frankie, brought to the scene with intensity and sensitivity by British breakthrough actor Harris Dickinson.
Out of school, jobless, and living at home with no apparent aim or ambition, Frankie spends an endless wet hot summer at the beach with his crew of three shirtless bros looking for a quick fix, playing handball, picking pockets, getting high, and chasing girls. At night, he retreats to the basement, which he prefers to his own room, where he navigates his emergent sexual desires by cruising gay cam site Brooklyn Boys, at first flirting shyly with a blank expression of both doubt and transfixion, and later arranging discreet hook ups by the beach, both with much older men: “I don’t know what I like.”
Shot on 16mm by Hélène Louvart (The Smell of Us, 2014), Beach Rats is an aesthetics triumph, maintaining a fine balance between hyper-masculinity and homoeroticism in its depiction of Frankie, who comes across as at once dangerous and vulnerable. Louvart’s gaze is ferocious, unbreakable, and the film is filled with shots of bodies captured from all angles, with Dickinson progressively undressed to the point of complete naked vulnerability, mirroring Frankie’s escalating self-discovery. The hazy, at times even shaky photography, with fuck-and-run shots aplenty, immerses the viewer in the experience. The French cinematographer curates the film as a light installation, featuring neon-illuminated streets, beaches under the cover of darkness and the harsh daylight of mornings after, not only to invoke the desired sensory effect in the viewer, but also to highlight the limitations of Frankie’s own world.
The Brooklyn of Beach Rats, Gerritsen Beach and the Coney Island boardwalk, is a stark portrayal of New York’s working class neighbourhoods and has an ethereal ‘trapped in time’ element, becoming a metaphorical prison for Frankie, who, propelled by the loss of his father and the profound lack of direction, role models, and passion in his life, grows increasingly numb under the immense pressure to conform to traditional masculinity. Hittman’s authentic character study further develops her already signature style of urban landscapes and their teen residents who find themselves trapped as their sexual identity begins to take shape. “When two girls make out, it’s hot; when two guys make out, it’s gay.” It is within this social sphere that Frankie comes to date Simone (Madeline Weinstein, the unsung hero of the film), whom he meets “under the fireworks.” His clandestine encounters continue nevertheless, and as a result of his erratic behaviour and inability to perform in bed, she ultimately breaks up with him: “You’re a fixer-upper.”
Light on plot and backed by the casting of non-actors for the secondary roles, Beach Rats at times feels like a documentary, and others like performance art thanks to the voyeuristic lingering of the camera on chiselled bodies and the tough-bro dialogue that comes across almost like macho boardwalk poetry. Emphasis is placed on Frankie not belonging to his community or fitting in with his three beach rats through the repeated “they’re not my friends”, but Hittman’s story is about a boy who has little or no potential in life, for whom escape is not possible. Beach Rats features no moments of epiphany that transform characters, culminating with Frankie’s final attempt to bring his secret world to the surface, which the director referred to as “an act of moral cowardice” at this year’s London Film Festival.
Dickinson’s expressive face amplifies Beach Rats’ most intense moments. The film’s key strength is its infecting melancholia and quietness and the inarticulation of its main character, who conveys much more physically than verbally, with dialogue delivered almost like a soliloquy. The true dramatic action here is in the faces, the hands, the arms, the stomachs, the biceps, the legs, the cheekbones, with silence becoming an integral part of both Frankie’s transition and the story’s tragedy, as the young man struggles to understand himself and lacks the vocabulary to express his inner conflict. Despite the cliched twists in the film’s final act, the viewer identifies with Frankie, his sense of being lost and his struggle with self-expression.
But is there room for a film like Beach Rats with its themes of repression and punishment in the year of Call Me by Your Name and God’s Own Country? Hittman’s sophomore attempt feels more at home as an American counterpart to recent European films dealing with repressed desires and clandestine pleasures, such as the Hungarian Land of Storms (2014) and the Polish Floating Skyscrapers (2013). Helmed by abundant eroticism and Dickinson’s portrayal of Frankie’s voiceless sexual longing, Beach Rats claims its spot as this year’s indie revelation.