An incredible lead and emotional specificity set LGBTQ drama Beach Rats apart.
Beach Rats is weary and jaded, just like its protagonist Frankie (Harris Dickinson). Its gutted state, not without emotion but with it overwhelmed by ravenous hopelessness, is perfectly earned. The soundtrack and firework light show of Coney Island, the amusement park capital where much of the film takes place, promises a hollow excess as transparent as the trashiness they emulate. Frankie is one of a group of young hooligans in wife beaters and gym shorts that frequent its entertainment, wearing their hair close-cropped and passing a sad communal joint between bony fingers down to a crispy roach. They have collarbone tattoos and bum around on beaches and in vape bars. During the day, they bust each other’s balls and carve out their own niche of white trash. At night, Frankie browses a gay hookup cam site. This simple act is enough to threaten his entire lifestyle, even before he begins meeting these men. As he finds his sexuality, he wrestles with retaining his humanity – a struggle writer/director Eliza Hittman thrusts again and again in her emotionally saturated sophomore feature.
The movie has two worlds that Frankie inhabits: the well-lit shame, pain, and disguise of the hungover summery daytime and the shadowy pleasures and anxious secrets of its sweaty nights. He meets a girl at a firework show, not that he was trying. We immediately think of Simone (Madeline Weinstein, indignant and headstrong) as Frankie’s beard, judging everything through his sexual dabblings. And that’s exactly where Hittman wants to take us. That’s his reality. His environment, despite being on the chain-smoking fringes in its own economic ways and in one of the most diverse cities in the country, is a place of cultural homogeneity. Its masculinity may be specific to its borough’s brand of blue collar, but it is closely-guarded and unwavering in its straightness. Frankie’s questioning sexuality rattles all this, demanding secrets. His desire for experimentation and difference are pent up to bursting when he, in conversation with Simone, compares the similarly exploding fireworks to his ideas of romance.
The build-up is slow but methodical, its pacing structured around what gets little attention as much as what is focused upon. Frankie’s father has cancer while his mother worries about his extracurriculars. These are of little importance to Frankie, who’s going through a crisis of his own on-screen. Lingering shots and those whose men are in focus even if they’re in the background, even if they’re out of the way and make our eye look for them, create a point of view for Frankie and the audience. We understand an abstract longing that terms are unclear and we understand from this that participating in the sexual expectations of his friends (hooking up with a girl met at Coney Island, for example) is the great fear in his life. He hides behind drug use and bad jokes to mask his impotence when these situations escalate, shot handheld with intimate care by Hélène Louvart and acted with such nuance by Dickinson that even mockery with Simone-the-would-be-conquest’s bra holds a soft contemplation of women’s clothing.
When Frankie faces another crisis early in the film, it solidifies his experimental urges, pushing him forward in a way that leaves us wondering if it is a desire for self-actualization – a carpe diem mood – or the simple escapism of the flesh. The move from fantasy to reality takes place, but its motives are obscured so delicately that the speculation deepens the character in its theorizing focus. Following a naked solo shower scene (it’s hard to make that sound anything but pornographic, but it’s not) that’s actually quite touching are a few different sex scenes on different sides of publicity. Frankie may take Simone back out to the amusement park – a place for him to be seen with her – but his gay relationships must take place in the woods and hotel rooms of men, for one reason or another, cruising for anonymity.
In all of these, Dickinson is breathtaking. Fear, nervousness, and excitement writhe in his eyes when these events come back to bite him. He tests the limits of acceptance with Simone (resulting in her bubble-bursting retort that “Two girls can make out and it’s hot but when two guys make out it’s just gay”) and worries at his website (Brooklyn Boys) behind splayed fingers. The film’s nervous energy fidgets and squirms through the uncomfortable facial expressions and close-ups of Frankie. Whether under interrogation by his scumbag friends or his mom, Frankie’s eyes ache, his hands wring. He is one solid muscle, completely tensed.
His muscles don’t escape the film’s self-reflexive scrutiny. The percussive slaps of ball against brick line up with the slaps of shirtless bodies against the screen, whap whap whap, the testosterone raging with its violent pulses. This violence underpinning these friends’ relationship and ideas about manhood means that when things go wrong for Frankie, he goes back to his tried and true defenses: half-hearted, quickly-aborted sex with women and drug use, which erase like those terrible pencil erasers that simply smudge and blacken rather than undo.
Desperation and drug dependence begin to color Frankie’s sexuality along with the unspoken yet ever-present anxiety imposed by his friends, the environment, and undercover police. The turning of homosexuality into a joke or a crime or a stigma is felt in every frame. This indirect disenfranchisement hums like the streetlights and hangovers of its victims and oppressors alike. Frankie, pushed into hiding (whether actively or passively), engages with his own tendency to exploit. In this, he gouges out his insides and, with nothing straight and acceptable to replace them with, becomes the hollow cynicism broken before the culture. The cycles here, returning to the website, the fireworks, and the beach, all warn of the idle dangers of complacency. But more specifically to Frankie, they warn of always living two lives and always having to return to one that never feels quite right. Beach Rats is an exquisitely shot indie drama about gay youth that will resonate with and haunt any who’ve had to hide themselves as colorless husks, flipping a switch like the fizzled neon of a derelict amusement park.