“Beach Rats,” the second feature from director Eliza Hittman, is at once sexual and unsexy — a thoroughly eroticized movie meant to encourage dread. It’s a summer film set in New York City in July, focused on hormonal teenage boys as they engineer ways of killing time and entertaining themselves; they are, for the most part, douchebags out for their own gratification at the expense of decency and the contents of strangers’ wallets. They’re awful. Less awful is Frankie (Harris Dickinson), Hittman’s clammed up protagonist, so much like the average teen in that he takes after mollusks (just try squeezing more than a handful of words out of his mouth at a time), and yet so unlike his peers thanks to a surplus of personal tumult.
This is, of course, Hittman’s MO per her superb 2014 debut, “It Felt Like Love,” in which she negotiated the gap between girlhood and womanhood with startling honesty. “Beach Rats” is the spiritual cousin to that picture — a narrative about adolescence in flux over the unpredictable and predictable operations of life: Frankie’s father is seen at home dying in a bed surrounded by monitors; he struggles to work through his increasingly strained relationships with his mom and his sister; and, as a budding young man, he’s dealing with feelings and lacks the necessary tools or guidance to reconcile them. Frankie appears to like girls, born out through the flirtation he pursues with Simone (Madeline Weinstein), but he likes men more, borne out through the secret rendezvous he sets up with guys through a Chatroulette-style proxy.
Unsurprisingly, he can’t tell anyone about that facet of his life, either because he has no idea how to or because he knows what the consequences will be if he does. Both of these options have zero appeal, but we see him weigh the pros and cons of telling his friends and family about his secrets anyways, even though, in the end, he never actually does; he toes the line of opening up but finds reason to withdraw inside himself every time. Through Hittman’s lens, Frankie’s confinement of self is tragedy at best, horrific at worst, and by the invocation of both, “Beach Rats” finds itself at a crossroads between the macho posturing observed in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” and the youthful, anarchic spirit of Elizabeth Woods’ “White Girl,” which is a pretty good place to be for your first or second feature.
Like Chiron in “Moonlight,” Frankie adopts a tough guy front out of necessity and under duress, a mirrored surface for deflecting suspicion about his sexuality. Like Woods does in “White Girl,” Hittman locks her camera on Harrison and all who float into his orbit, creating a hectic intimacy that turns proximity into suspense. “Beach Rats” is front-loaded with subliminal boners, and so we expect a certain amount of carnality to burst forth upon Hittman’s frame, but the sex here is tainted by shame, perhaps even fear; the catharsis of physical love never relieves Frankie of the emotional burden he carries on his shoulders. The explanation of why doesn’t provide any sense of closure, either. Frankie is his own burden.
Is it too simple to describe “Beach Rats” as abidingly sad? Movies so rarely impress sensation on us with the urgency Hittman generates from the director’s chair; she keeps her viewers cramped up against her subjects, such that any bead of sweat, any wisp of smoke, any dusted up oxy that’s captured on screen notifies our sensory faculties. Frankie parties on a boat; we feel like we’re on board with him. He and his friends crush up pills to get high; we can smell the medication as it’s crumbled into powder. Vape clouds billow before Hittman’s eye and we wonder if we might just reach out and touch them. And Frankie fires up the Brooklyn Boys website, trawling for sex with strangers, we’re sitting in his basement with him, and thus also with his soul-crushing isolation. We are “Beach Rats’ ” captive audience. If the film is tender, it’s merciless at the same time.
Many a man’s belt is unbuckled in “Beach Rats”; many a man takes his pleasure as Frankie is stuck in this dynamic, desperately trying to figure himself out while the people he has cultivated as components of his inner circle choke his attempts to do precisely that. Tentatively, he wonders aloud if Simone thinks two men making out is hot; she corrects him, plainly, cruelly, flatly, asserting that girls making out is hot, but guys making out is merely “gay.” It’s the movie’s key scene, the first of two critical sequences of emergence where Frankie takes one step forward to liberation, and immediately takes five more backwards after reading the room. Your heart will break for him once in the moment, and once more as the credits begin rolling and we’re left with a sobering thought: That Frankie, like the fireworks displays that bookend his story, will remain the same as he did last week, and the week before last. That realization alone is enough to snatch the breath from your lungs, assuming Hittman’s craftsmanship doesn’t do the job beforehand. [A]