Eliza Hittman’s sophomore feature Beach Rats is a unique exploration into the confusion, and shame that surrounds male sexuality. Harris Dickinson plays Frankie, a teenager living in South Brooklyn’s working-class coastal communities. His performance is filled with a kind of tangible anxiety, so electric that you can feel it through the screen. The peaceful exhilaration he feels in front of a webcam, anonymous and posing for older men is the tide breaking against the shore of his everyday life.
Hittman was inspired by a photo she saw on Facebook. “There was this tension between hyper-masculine and homoerotic that the picture so clearly illustrated.” It’s this tension that she examines in Beach Rats.
Frankie doesn’t know what he likes. The repetition of this sentiment throughout the film stops the audience from feeling comfortable or steady, we feel as untethered as Frankie does and this is the beauty of Hittman’s screenplay and direction. The boy experiments with older men online, posing in the privacy of his own room for them through his computer screen.
His preference for older men isn’t necessarily because he finds them more attractive, but because he wants to keep this part of his life secret from his friends. The drama in the film comes from the impending collision of these two very separate parts of his life. Beach Rats is essentially a coming-of-age story as Frankie is forced to confront aspects of his identity that he is determined to ignore or keep hidden from the rest of the world.
Space and situation play a fundamental role in this film. Hittman was inspired by the South Brooklyn beaches that he grew up living near.
Frankie wastes his days on the beaches with his friends, running from nothing and everything against the neon backdrop of Coney Island and Manhattan Beach. He exists in the liminal spaces of the beach and the internet, something that is expertly portrayed in the opening scene.
Frankie is alone in darkness illuminated by his camera which takes shot of isolated part of his body: chest, bicep, hipbone are all separate, floating in the artificial light of the flash. This disjointed effect sets up the rest of the film expertly.
Stories centring around the intricate, often misunderstood experiences of coming out have rarely been the main focus in cinema. LGBT stories are often sub-plots or background theatre, relegated to the shadows and rarely examined beyond a surface level. The stories told by directors and scriptwriters usually follow the same basic principle — pain, both emotional or physical, and in many cases both, must feature in the character’s personal journey of self-exploration.
The ending is rarely happy for characters questioning their identity and sexuality, something that’s been noticed by critics and audiences alike. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) was criticised for its portrayal of lesbian relationships and love — in particular, the way the male gaze framed the focus of the film.
The CW show The 100 too has garnered criticism from audiences and critics alike for its treatment of lesbian couple Clarke and Lexa.
However, perhaps this is changing. The 2015 romantic drama Carol, directed by Todd Haynes and Barry Jenkins’ beautiful and award-winning Moonlight (2016) both contrast starkly with Hollywood’s previous LGBT offerings. Both hint at something more than false hope and wishful thinking, whilst poignant and uncertain, Moonlight and Carol offer a brighter, kinder, more promising future for their main cast.
However, Beach Rats shouldn’t to be compared to these films simply because all three are centred around issues specific to LGBT people. It’s true that they shine a light on what is often a confusing moment — it can be a very long moment too — in time for questioning or searching people, but Beach Rats in unique in its approach.
A balance between the uncomfortable, even harsh reality of the protagonist’s reality, and the dreamlike escapism he finds in his webcam.