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The Dark Depths Of Budding Sexuality In ‘Beach Rats’

When films focus on stories of adolescent sexual awakenings, they tend to focus on the more positive elements: discovery, excitement, sexual pleasure, and budding relationships. But not all those moments of discovery are pleasant, and sometimes what we find isn’t what we hoped for. In Beach Rats, director Eliza Hittman focuses with laser-precision on the sexual awakening of a young gay man unable to understand himself or his position in the world.

Hittman first explored these darker elements of adolescent sexuality with her revelatory first feature, It Felt Like Love, about a teenage girl searching for love in all the wrong places. Beach Rats feels like a companion to that film, even a transposition. British actor (and filmmaker) Harris Dickinson plays Frankie, who spends his evenings alone in his family’s basement browsing a chat site for gay men. Some are looking for conversation, but others are only interested in hookups, which is all Frankie can handle. He hides behind a slouched baseball cap and performs a kind of masculinity, and when the men ask what he’s looking for, Frankie says he doesn’t know. It’s a lie, though — he knows exactly what he wants, but is afraid to be open about it.

Upstairs, Frankie’s mother and sister are dealing with the impending death of his terminally ill father. He’s testy and arrogant around his good-natured but prying mother, and zealously puritanical about his younger sister’s budding romance with a boy, unable to separate the shame he feels about his own sexuality from his sister’s new-found romance.

Frankie spends his days in a haze of weed with his friends. They’re not the enlightened liberal youths of gentrifying Brooklyn, but the uneducated descendants of the working class. When he meets a girl named Simone (Madeline Weinstein) at the beach, he rushes into a perfunctory relationship just to use her as beard. Even as he tries to plaster up this fake relationship, the cracks begin to appear.

Dickinson plays Frankie with an admirable degree of reserve. Frankie is someone incapable of expression his true emotions or desires, but Dickinson imbues him with a sense of inner turmoil. When he turns stony around his mother or sister, his true feelings seem to flit around behind his eyes. The film gives him a chance to create disguises for Frankie; he originally sports a longer, stylish haircut, but buzzes it all off in order to look exactly like his cookie-cutter friends.

Although Dickinson is in nearly even scene, Beach Rats is also graced with a number of strong supporting performances. Weinstein has the difficult task of making Simone more than just an object to obscure Frankie’s sexuality; it’s not her story, and the film doesn’t delve into her life much, but she sympathetically shows how Simone could allow herself to be deceived by Frankie. The part hearkens back to Hittman’s previous film, It Felt Like Love, and its female protagonist, who willfully deludes herself in hope of finding love.

Beach Rats’ professional actors excel at creating a sense of authenticity, but Hittman accentuates it by casting non-actors as Frankie’s friends. From the cadences of their voices to their masculine posturing, they have an exhilarating air of veracity. Their simple performances strike a perfect note and give the film a welcome dash of documentary realism.

Despite the often depressing tone of the film, Hittman and French cinematographer Hélène Louvart photograph a version of Brooklyn dominated by scorching yellow sand, deep ocean blues, and nightly kaleidoscopic firework displays. It’s one of the best examples of the versatility of 16mm film since Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015). Yet when Frankie withdraws to his basement, he spends much of his time taking bare-chested selfies in front of a dirty mirror. When he first meets Simone at a beachside fireworks display, he complains about the fireworks being the same every night. Later, we see that he has a fireworks screensaver on his computer. Louvart films the flashes from Frankie’s phone in the dirty mirror so that they become nearly overwhelming, as if he’s trying to create his own kind of fireworks.

Some of the reviews for Beach Rats have suggested the film suffers from the “bury your gays” trope because of an act of violence Frankie takes part in late in the film (voiced most elegantly by Ira Madison III). It’s a somewhat misleading claim, since Frankie is a perpetrator, and moreover, it fails to take into account the very particular setting of the film. Frankie is awash in a culture that constantly shames and devalues him; is it any wonder that he floats in just as much internalized shame?

Beach Rats is a complicated film, full of as many ugly moments of human frailty as images of pure beauty. Yet even as she focuses on darker aspects of human nature, Hittman is always attentive to the plight of her protagonists. It’s a welcome dash of sympathy.

Written By

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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