In her first feature, It Felt Like Love (2013), Eliza Hittman explored a young Brooklyn girl’s troubled life as she attempts to throw herself into the world of sexual experience. The subject matter of Beach Rats, her second film, is much the same, but this time our central figure is a young gay man. Both films pay homage to the neighbourhoods of South Brooklyn. In this film, the neon, gaudy blare of Coney Island forms the backdrop to a summer in the life of Frankie (Harris Dickinson), an introverted boy in his late teens, grappling with an emergent sexuality.
Frankie’s attraction to men and activities relating to an online gay chatroom are secrets he keeps from his family and his friends, disguising them under the camouflage of a new girlfriend, Simone (Madeline Weinstein). He is experimenting for the first time with having sex with men he meets online, and spends the rest of his days drifting listlessly through fairground attractions, parks and street corners with his friends. Although, twice in the film, Frankie insists aloud that the hyper-masculine group of guys he hangs around with are not, in fact, his friends. We know what he means. In the sense of people he can confide in and feel comfortable around, they fall short of the mark. Frankie’s interactions with the men from the chatroom are more intimate in some ways, but he also can’t make meaningful connections here: in the same breath as discussing sex with them, he says that he doesn’t think of himself as gay, and protests that he has a girlfriend.
Beach Rats owes its success to its omissions, its things unsaid, opportunities for kindness missed. The film has very little dialogue, and on the few occasions that Frankie has the courage to try to probe his friends on their thoughts on homosexuality, the results are bleak. Simone sums it up for him: unlike when two girls make out, when two guys do the same, “it’s not hot, it’s just gay.” The camera often rests on segments of male bodies; sunburnt shoulders under street lamps; spun-out shots of taut necks, forearm ridges and biceps in the sunlight. It’s Frankie’s gaze, longing and lingering, that signals to the audience that which he desires and cannot articulate himself.
This inability to vocalise his thoughts and lack of self-knowledge is central to Frankie He responds twice to being questioned about his sexual mores by saying, “I don’t really know what I like”. In a lesser film this could have made his character seem thin, but not so in Beach Rats: the camera’s intensely close focus on him throughout means we pick up on every glance, every furrowed brow, every intake of breath that belies his true feelings. This close focus also helps convey Frankie’s sense of being trapped by his roots: he is both a believably individual character and a stand-in for all young, working class gay men who are unable to explore their true selves. Instead, Frankie tries to ratchet up his masculinity, taking too many drugs and sparring with his friends, wearing their uniform of vests and gold chains.
The women of Frankie’s world suffer, too, for the way that Frankie’s sexuality is repressed by his surroundings. His lack of sexual attraction to Simone leads him to treat her poorly out of shame and embarrassment: after he can’t get an erection the first night they spend together, he mocks her by holding her bra to his chest and imitating her. His relationship with his mother is also characterised by distance, and her questions about his love life, her way of trying to ingratiate herself with him, are met with terse rebuffs. The chatroom is his only contact with gay culture, a browser window into a world that both disgusts and excites him. In one scene he watches a man on camera through his fingers, his hands over his face.
The climactic moment, however, in which Frankie’s own societally ingrained homophobia and self-loathing finds an external target, falls inexplicably flat. He encourages his friends to tail him on a meeting he’s set up with a young man from the chatroom – the first man he hooks up with who’s his own age – in order to get their hands on his weed. They pursue him aggressively into the sea, take his weed and punch him in the face for his trouble. Dickinson gives this everything he’s got in terms of his silent, brooding reaction in the days following the incident, but the moment itself is poorly choreographed and lacks impact. The silence of the boys, the briefness of the altercation, the fact we don’t get to see or hear anything more from the victim after his assault is uncomfortable. Because of this moment in particular, audiences have asked whether Hittman, as a woman, has the right to tell this story of a young gay man’s anguished coming of age. Perhaps she doesn’t. But if the question is whether Hittman has told this story effectively, and affectingly, my answer has to be in the affirmative. The sex scenes are sensitively and sensually done, and there is more honesty surrounding the physical realities of gay hook-up culture than you often see: we watch as Frankie trims his pubic hair and washes his bottom carefully.
But the most powerful aspect of Beach Rats is that it is a succinct statement on how toxically masculine and homophobic environments suffocate everybody in them. It gets across the subtle range of ways in which a young gay man can feel that suffocation, from anger to ennui, from humiliation to despair.