The kids who roam Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn are known as “beach rats”. Self-medicating with a cocktail of painkillers and narcotics, they don’t lead easy lives. Eliza Hittman’s followup to her 2013 It Felt Like Love follows one loose cannon as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality.
Frankie (Harris Dickinson) has the most unbelievably bad luck. Victim of his repressed homosexual desires, the tortured adolescent must conform to the role of masculinity he had set out for himself – and meanwhile, his father is dying of cancer. Down the well-trodden coming-of-age path we go. Freckled and with a ski-jump nose, Frankie is rendered especially vulnerable. Dickinson’s expressiveness with his use of body language mean the tiniest of his gestures carry the greatest of emotions.
The decision to shoot on 35mm risks grimy poverty porn but instead it nicely makes the minutiae of emotion in a sexual awakening feel a lot more real; Beach Rats is all about lingering beads of sweat and first embraces.
But there are problems with the story. It is unclear whether Frankie meets gay men online to embrace his sexual desire, or for their intoxicants which allow him to escape that desire. The cinematography is that of the straight, female gaze – aestheticizing pecs and shoulders – but, perhaps problematically, never gets up close with gay sex.
For a female director, Beach Rats‘ treatment of women is fairly unsympathetic. Frankie’s mother, younger sister and potential girlfriend are all pretty uninspiring – which is sad given how much soul-searching our male protagonist does.
It is a shame that the LGBT+ plot of queer self-discovery is frustratingly neglected for the less original story of kids getting high and their need for self escape. More in-depth characters could have made this Sundance indie less predictable. Watch Claire Denis’s Beau Travail instead.
CAST: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Neal Huff
DIRECTOR: Eliza Hittman
WRITER: Eliza Hittman
SYNOPSIS: An aimless teenager on the outer edges of Brooklyn struggles to escape his bleak home life and navigate questions of self-identity, as he balances his time between his delinquent friends, a potential new girlfriend, and older men he meets online.