In Beach Rats, Eliza Hittman’s second feature film, the idea of sexual identity is explored through the main character Frankie (played by Harris Dickinson). Frankie is a teenager from Brooklyn, who is constantly negotiating his time between his new girlfriend, his friends, and perusing the internet in hopes of finding men – to meet up to engage in sex or score drugs from. This last part he hides from everyone in his life.
The really interesting side to Frankie’s character, is his refusal to identify as either gay or bisexual, although an early scene seems to hint at a desire to be able to do so. The scene in question, is a conversation between Frankie and his girlfriend, Simone (Madeline Weinstein), were they discuss the topic of women kissing each other. Frankie then asks if “it’s hot when men kiss.” to which Simone replies “When two girls make out, it’s hot. When two guys make out it’s just gay.” It’s a glum, hypocritical world Frankie inhabits.
This aspect to the character is the main source of conflict in the story. As the movie progresses, Frankie resorts to more desperate measures to keep these two worlds separate, and is eventually forced to make a decision. The scene is tense and sad, but feels perfectly in tune with the character that has been established. Hittman is clearly going for what feels real to the character, and it works extremely well.
The cast are fantastic, but the English born Dickinson is the standout, with a quiet, understated performance. One of the cleverer nuances he adds to his performance is to go from showing a more confident side of Frankie, when he is talking to his friends, to a softer, more shy side, when he is talking to the men on the internet. We also see this softer side to him when he is talking to his mother (Kate Hodge), which, again, could be another hint at his yearning to come out.
One thing that is really obvious when watching this film, is how talented Hittman is as both writer and director. As a writer, she explores the themes of male sexuality, and sexual identity, in a really subtle way, whilst making the characters, and the world they inhabit, feel real. The dialogue in many scenes is left deliberately vague, as though the audience is meant to interpret what characters really mean.
As a director, she has a really unique visual style, that is naturalistic, yet vibrant. The naturalistic style makes it seem like we’re outsiders peering into this character’s world. The 16mm cinematography by Hélène Louvart, adds to the intimate feeling of the film, especially in the scenes where Frankie is using the internet to find his next hookup.
Beach Rats is a emotionally affecting, character driven drama, that is well worth seeking out for the lead performance alone. Hittman tells a utterly compelling story, and I’m excited to see what she does next.
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