When we first meet Frankie, he’s cruising for penis. Clicking through the live cams on a website called Brooklyn Boys, he looks for older men, asking to see the goods before meeting them for surreptitious and largely anonymous sex. Why older men? So they won’t know anyone he knows.
Maybe you can see where this is going. Frankie’s group of friends doesn’t know about this sexual proclivity, and he works hard to hide it. Actually, ‘friends’ might be a bit of a stretch—they don’t seem to have much in common besides doing drugs and playing handball shirtless. To throw everyone, including himself, off track, he hooks up with a girl named Simone. Their first attempt at a sexual liaison ends limply. It’s clear to us almost immediately that Frankie isn’t even bi—he’s got a full blown case of The Gay.
As we all know, literally every gay man in existence has an absent father and overbearing mother. So Beach Rats makes Frankie’s father an invalid; riddled with cancer, he’s capable only of laying on a bed in the living room. Frankie’s mother takes an interest in his life that seems greater than concern and dangerously close to intrusive. It’s already a chore keeping his nocturnal recreations from his ‘friends,’ his mother adds another few psi to his pressure cooker. Will Frankie find a way to harmonise his life with his sexual orientation? Have you seen this situation before?
I’m surprised to learn that writer/director Eliza Hittman was born and raised in Brooklyn. Surprised, because everything about Beach Rats feels just slightly artificial, as if it were written and directed by a foreigner. The dialogue sounds as if it were translated into English from another language—indeed, it would play much better subtitled. Frankie seems less like real person than a composite of several (fictional) closeted gay teens from other American indie films. Surely there are people like him in the real world, but as a character, he feels more intuited than observed. Hittman constantly seems on the outside looking in.
This inauthenticity extends to the style of Beach Rats, which tries to waver between the steaminess of Claire Denis and the flat poetry of early David Gordon Green. Hittman takes several opportunities to fill her screen with the sweaty, chiseled torsos of her cast, as if purposefully inviting eyeroll-inducing Salon essays about the Female Gaze. But the skin feels forced; like Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s nudity as novelty. Tastefully gratuitous, the cursory flashes of shaft and pube are precisely crafted to titillate a certain audience while avoiding the most restrictive content rating.
Pretty much every aspect of Beach Rats feels like an imitation of something Hittman saw elsewhere. The film’s biggest virtue, though, is Harris Dickinson as Frankie, sporting a largely successful American accent. The British actor reveals a striking capacity for a kind of smouldering internal monologue—like Ryan Gosling or Casey Affleck. He clearly understands Frankie’s inner unrest even as the screenplay strains to dramatise it. His could have been one of the best performances of the year, if perhaps Hittman had given him less to say and more to do. His talent shines through.
What finally stunts Beach Rats is the sheer predictability of its climax. Of course I won’t spoil it, but if you’ve seen gay-themed films like Get Real and last year’s Moonlight, you’ll see the final events coming from a mile away, which undercuts all power they might have had. The difference is that in those films, such events are a stepping-stone in their main characters’ evolution. Frankie doesn’t have a character arc as much as a character line segment, and the end point isn’t that far from the start.