Rough and Raw Coming-of-Age Tale
Highlights Queer Sexuality in Limbo
In a post-Brokeback Mountain world, when LGBTQ+ visibility is, arguably, at its highest, it’s easy to forget about stories that center on the invisible. While the inclusion of openly queer characters on-screen is becoming more commonplace, films about those still struggling with their sexuality are just as vital as ever. In the movies, queer characters are often been fueled by denial and anonymous exploration, both of which dominate the sexcapades depicted in Eliza Hittman’s second feature, Beach Rats.
The film centers on Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a young man who spends his days roaming the beaches of southern Brooklyn with his friends seeking girls, drugs, trouble, or any combination of the three. By night, however, Frankie spends his time scouring online gay chat rooms, and, every now and again, venturing out of his parent’s basement to meet men for anonymous sex. It’s a sordid story, no doubt, but one that’s worth telling. Though the film’s tendency towards subtlety can appear boring at first, it’s within these silences where Beach Rats is loudest.
While clandestine hookups have long existed in films about gay men, what makes Beach Rats so particular is its refusal to draw any outright conclusions. Frankie’s behavior deals visible emotional damage, not just to himself but to those around him, and yet there seems to be no alternative. While it's technically set in New York City, a place considered by many to be the epicenter of liberal, cosmopolitan culture, the Brooklyn suburbs of Beach Rats feel much more conservative. Frankie’s house is not a trendy, downtown loft; his hobbies don’t include trips to galleries or vacations to the Hamptons. Though some of the scenery may seem familiar to some, the world of Beach Rats is something entirely alien. The perpetual turn of Coney Island’s neon Wonder Wheel paired with shots of sun-soaked subway cars lend an air of surrealism that would fool a less perceptive viewer (or even the typical Manhattanite) into thinking the film's setting is make-believe. It’s a jarring reminder that life, and indeed New York, extends beyond the Brooklyn Bridge.
Given its more moderate circumstances, Frankie’s sexuality is, accordingly, questioned not only by himself but by his his friends and family as well. In an exchange between himself and prospective girlfriend Simone (Madeline Weinstein), she points out that, “Two girls can make out and it’s hot, but when two guys make out, it’s gay,” a statement that might sound dated to an audience in 2017, is one that nonetheless pushes Frankie further into the closet. Facing resistance from his friends and without the presence of any visible, compassionate queer people around him, Frankie is left in limbo, out out of place among gay men as well as with his friends and family.
Beach Rats is most powerful when it’s comfortably resting between extremes, balancing equally disappointing circumstances against each other, all without delivering a verdict. Despite how straightforward it may appear, Beach Rats imbues layers of complexities beneath its barefaced set up. Its protagonist is the prime example: Frankie lives a life wrought with them, his true desires constantly getting tangled up in lies and deceptions. When he’s with his friends, he’s a loitering degenerate who likes smoking weed and getting laid, no strings attached. But with Simone, he’s gentle, and at times even romantic. Still, Beach Rats leaves it to the audience to decide if he's pursuing her out of a genuine attraction or if he's trying to convince others (and most importantly himself) that he can fit in with everyone else.
And in the basement of his parent’s house he’s something altogether different – an insecure, sexually frustrated young man seeking connection (or validation) in the cover of darkness. Though the film portrays sex in a rather surreptitious manner, it never strays into the pornographic, and some of the most tender and illuminating scenes are those that are post-coital. But even when he allows himself to embrace his burgeoning sexuality, Frankie is still enigmatic, relying on defenses that quell his confusion and internalized homophobia: that he’s not really gay, or that he just uses the chat rooms to find drugs. He genuinely attempts to maintain this façade, though it’s not hard to pick up on his friends’ passive disbelief, and while they don’t outwardly reject him, their disapproval is palpable.
Hittman’s screenplay is decidedly discreet, preferring moments of silence to scenes overwrought with histrionics. Much of the dialogue is made up of unembellished language, with simple, one-word answers. The lack of outward emotion allows for richer subtext, each causal interaction carving out a deeper cavern of contradiction and intimation. While this is mostly used to the film’s advantage, it’s lack of pizzazz is also its biggest weakness. Frankie’s undemonstrative attitude, though crucial to his character, is hard to love and can be difficult to sympathize with, despite knowing the pressure he’s under to maintain this rough exterior.
Further, Frankie’s home life is rich with potential, thanks to superb performances from Kate Hodge and Nicole Flyus (as Donna and Carla, Frankie’s mother and sister, respectively), but is disappointingly relegated to short-lived scenes that do little more than track Frankie’s whereabouts. The other promising subplot, involving his cancer-stricken father, is presented as little more than a cursory footnote, a tragic but half-hearted metaphor for the lack of an authoritative male presence in Frankie’s life. In their stead are numerous scenes of Frankie and his friends wandering the beaches and hanging out at the local vape shop, perfecting their smoke rings. Though these scenes highlight the fact that Frankie and his friends truly have nothing better to do, it doesn’t make them any less lackluster.
But within this humble narrative, Beach Rats delivers a satisfying antidote to the recent glut of shallow, performative queer representation in film today. It’s easy to want to assign a category to Frankie, be it gay, questioning, or even bisexual, but the film’s open-ended nature (both with Frankie’s sexuality and the film’s harrowing ending) is what makes it so compelling. Though it may seem uninspired at first glance (yet another coming-of-age narrative about a white man struggling with his sexuality?), the character of Frankie actually serves as proxy for some of the most vulnerable people in existence: those who don’t have the fundamental opportunity live openly as their true selves. Despite its reticence, Beach Rats showcases a life that deserves a spotlight, despite its proclivity for shadows.