Beach Rats ****
Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge
Director: Eliza Hittman
Gay coming-of-age movies are ten-a-penny nowadays and initially, Beach Rats looks to be just another to add to the catalogue. But where most of these films stack the odds against them, their protagonists usually seem amenable to the idea of overcoming them, whereas here, things are a little more complicated.
Frankie (Dickinson) lives in Brooklyn with his mother (Hodge), younger sister and dying father. It is the height of summer and he spends most of his time with friends at the beach, whether in the sea, on the boardwalk or at the pleasure beach. They drink, smoke, take drugs but don’t make a real nuisance of themselves. But when Frankie meets Simone (Weinstein), a girl who doggedly tries to pursue him, he is forced to face up with the secret aspect of his life that he had, until now, managed to keep hidden; he is attracted only to men. While trying to erect the façade of a relationship with Simone, he continues to meet older men he met online for sex, but it is only a matter of time before he is forced to face up to the truth about himself and his worlds collide with explosive results.
Dickinson gives a remarkable central performance with the camera barely leaving him for a second. The film is a complex character piece, charting Frankie’s ongoing battle with his sexuality. Outwardly he is everything a straight working-class boy should be; good-looking, athletic, masculine. However, he is also withdrawn, which his friends and family take as a sign of his rebellious angst but actually exists to mask the battle he is clearly fighting inside. In the opening moments of the film we see him engaged in a webcam chat with strangers online, but even there he hides in the shadows with a baseball cap concealing his face and the light aimed away from his face. It’s as though he cannot even acknowledge his sexuality; it’s compartmentalised as something separate from him. And when he does meet men, he is zombie-like in his encounters, going through the motions of something he cannot connect with his identity elsewhere.
As his father lies dying of cancer, he meets men considerably older than himself. When questioned about this, he attributes his meeting older men to there being a lesser possibility of being identified, but his father’s illness has clearly made a profound impact on him. Regardless of his intentions, he is unable to reconcile the very possibility of being gay with the rest of his life. In a rare moment of candour, he asks Simone about people of the same sex kissing. Despite being seemingly the most sexually open person in the film, her response is perfectly indicative of the prevailing attitude Frankie has grown up with: “Two girls kissing is hot. Two guys kissing is just gay.”
At home, his mother is completely oblivious to what her son is going through. Attributing his erratic behaviour to drugs and his friends, she sees his acting out as insensitive while they deal with his father’s cancer. She is trying desperately to be a good mother, but in not knowing the full truth about her son, she is completely incapable of preventing the dark path he takes later in the film. If he had come out to her, she clearly would have been wholly accepting of him. Similarly, if he had come out to his friends, they probably would have too, but because he cannot accept himself he then leads them down a homophobic path purely by accident.
Though a slow film, Dickinson’s performance capably carries the film almost by himself. With an observational style, the story relies heavily on the audience picking up the subtleties of Frankie’s character, forcing us to join the dots as the narrative resists the urge to linger longer than it needs to. As a result, this isn’t the easiest of films, but its insistence on making us construct our own reading of Frankie’s motives leaves the film all the richer. With sparse music, realist cinematography and diminutive dialogue, Hittman’s direction allows Dickinson space to breathe in his movie debut, with startlingly brilliant results.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS.