When director/ writer Eliza Hitman began making Beach Rats she had no genre or classification in mind or that she was intentionally making a gay movie. “I guess when I started making the movie, I didn’t think of it us a gay movie or whether it would be accepted or rejected in that classification”. Further adding “The film is not a coming out film. It’s a film where the character (Frankie) is growing to understand himself and his desires. He realises he is scared of this new unknown world, the liberal world. He doesn’t have any knowledge of it”. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a handsome 19-year-old youth who we are introduced to at a life impasse. As adulthood beckons, he is suddenly having to navigate a troubled family life with a dying father, group peer pressure, an ambivalent relationship with his girlfriend and a closeted burgeoning homosexual desire.
Its simple stylish aesthetics, pot-smoking haziness, a refreshingly lingering female gaze, subtle intrigue, naturalistic plot, but also exceptional character exploration make Beach Rats a truly striking film. The apparent meticulous strive by Hittman to depict an honest, cutting and visually arresting story has rightfully won her the Director's Award at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film premiered in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival in October with a full release this month through Peccadillo Pictures.
This is Hittman’s second full feature; her first It Felt Like Love from 2013 followed similar lines of misguided adolescence and sexual discovery. A recurring theme in her work, “I approached the film from very much the point of view of lost youth. A character who doesn’t see a way out of their world. Which is something I spent most of my career writing about”. Beach Rats represents this investigation, focusing in on: youth, beauty, carelessness but also the aimlessness of adolescence; especially within certain pockets of New York which are devoid of any aspiration and down trodden by little future prospect. This assemblage of young guys who hang by the beach all day, people-watching, scoring drugs, playing video games, dabbling with occasional petty crime.
Hittman is a native New Yorker, born and bed in Flatbush, Brooklyn; close to locations seen in the film. “For me what is interesting when making films in New York as New Yorker, compared to other film-makers who come to New York to kickstart their careers, is that I have this other perspective; I have this knowledge and access to other areas which I can represent on screen”. In fact New York is a stand alone character in the film; its recognisable scenery features prominently throughout. Numerous locations are Brooklyn and Queens; the Coney Island-esque promenades, neon-lit arcades, ferris wheel-ed amusement parks and secluded cruising spots.
Living in a metropolitan city such as New York, one would generally assume that Frankie has access and freedom to meet other gay people or that at least his social group would be a little more openminded than what is displayed here. Hittman is keen to point out another view “New York has changed a lot radically and like London it has pushed people to the further outer the edges of the city limits and I feel there are pockets within these edges that are perhaps isolated. Areas you wouldn’t think of as New York, or as being progressive. Like Staten Island is what we would call completely red“. Red, meaning areas which are conservative and racially divided, with a less of a liberal outlook.
You can see this play out Frankie’s inner psyche. He is forever succumbing to the pressures of his heteronormative surroundings, his family and social circle contradict his innate non-confirming homosexual leanings. Leading a double life, his two sides never meet and shows no signs of ever converging any time soon. Its most evident when he is amongst his brutish buddies; being gay doesn't fit with their concept masculinity whatsoever. A telling point when his girlfriend Simone (Madeliene Weinstein) foolishly decrees ‘two girls kissing is hot, two men kissing is gay’. Hittman enlightens, “I think if you were from one of those areas there would be no coming out”.
The film’s final moments proved troublesome for some audiences at the film's first screening at Sundance. End scenes featuring an attack on a gay man who Frankie meets online and coaxes him to meet him, only for then to be attacked by his friends with a bid to steal his drugs. Hittman’s use of this as a plot twist was considered by some as exploitative of internalised homophobia. Her response to the reaction was unapologetic, stating that she makes films that challenge people and not after school specials. Rightly so, even though depiction of such scenes maybe jarring for some viewers, the twist does feel like a natural development of the story; its very much in line with Frankie’s current supressed vantage point.
Frankie is played by British actor Harris Dickinson who is simply brilliant in the role. Tall and statuesque, combining youthful twinky masculinity and a reserved curiosity. Shy, insecure and still very impressionable. When older gentlemen ask him what turns him on, he meekly confesses to not knowing but in subsequent sex scenes he appears more experienced that he lets on. In other scene we see Frankie taking semi-nude selfies or trimming his pubes. Perhaps indicating how unaware of how homoerotic his behaviour is, or he's choosing not to see it. Hittman explains “I think for me, Frankie is a character who is very much afraid of who he is and who he might be. We are catching him in a moment of confronting the horror that he is realizing he is not who he wants to be”. Equally noteworthy is Wienstein as the highly sexualised Simone. At first she makes a beeline for Frankie, giving her role an air of confidence and assertiveness. In sex scenes she appears, knowing of herself, her body and her sexual expertise; however as her relationship with Frankie becomes more complex and uncertain; self-doubt starts to kick in.
Hittman has mentioned in interviews that Instagram, was a way of her casting some of the roles; particularly Instagram selfies of real life ‘beach rats’, kids who she later approached to be in the film. Frankie's thuggish friends, Nick, Alexei Jesse; are all non-actors, ranging from various ethnic backgrounds such as Serbia, Ukraine and Kirgizstan. Their deliveries are impressively realistic, with none of the expected amateurish over-acting. They give their characters an intimidating, aloof, almost threatening exterior, which gives the impression that they are older. In way its their own puerile interpretation of masculinity, which is another of the film's running theme. They pay great attention to their looks and physique, exposing it as much as possible whilst still trying to maintain this macho, tough facade. Obviously, this aloofness and impressionability masks great insecurity and painful shyness. Their private playful banter, their incessant loafing around smoking copious amounts of weed, betrays their young mindset.
The film’s cinematography is by Helen Louvart; previous work includes the Greek film Xenia which treads on similar stylistic and thematic motifs. There is a certain escapist, hazy and grainy look to some scenes whilst others are treated to a warm colour pallet of pales and ocean blues. The intricate camera work and unorthodox angles give the sensation of voyueristic peeking in. Hittman talks about placing symbols throughout the film “The internet is sort of portal to what’s outside your world. An erotic, sort of exotic world. I purposely chose the screen saver to be this exotic beach on a tropical island; cause I wanted to feel that it was a place for him to explore his fantasies. Which I’m sure its common, straight or gay. Adolescent, teenagers; the internet is a sexually charged place”.
Frankie appears to have a penchant for older men. One’s instant assumption is that he longs for a father figure or a desire to be dominated. Hittman however explains otherwise,“I felt that he was hiding a bit. There was something more emotionally risky about meeting someone your own age. That was my feeling and why I chose for him to go with older men. Also, personally just knowing friends who started out on sites, they started to get hit on by older men at first”.
The numerous sex scenes scattered throughout the film have a soft and intimate feel; still highly erotic, we see a lot of flesh but it’s never explicit or full frontal.
There is certain female gaze that Hittman brings to the table. “For me I didn’t want sex to feel forced. Each scene, tells a different story and serves a different function to the narrative. And that for me is what’s important in shooting a sex scene. I ask myself what is this scene about? It’s easy when you turn the camera and getting the actors to interact physically to lose the intention. But for me it’s all about cutting and shooting for intention”. Further claiming “Each sex scene is different; theres a range of sexual experiences presented. They are not all repetitive and I think that’s what’s important. For me I never want to shoot something just because its erotic. A want to give a sense of don’t know where this is going to the audience and that way increases anticipation. I am trying to cut and shapes audiences anticipation of what’s going to happen. It’s never about sitting back and watching people have sex”.
With Beach Rats , Frankie is Hittman's vehicle to portray a complicated young character fluctuating between two separate worlds, unsure of what the future holds. Its hard not to like him, you almost forgive his behaviour, as he is still young and trying to figure things out in a very conflicting environment. Despite such a beautiful filmic portrayal, the underlying message is very sad and yet another indication of persisting homophobia, which subsequently becomes internalised. Hittman illuminates us “in a way Frankie is trying out different roles and I don’t think that he knows yet. And personally I believe with his current trajectory in the film I wouldn’t know where he will be in 5 years. Possibly, still not out of the closet. This moment of discovery is pivotal in his life and this the period in his life I'm exploring and I wanted audiences to get the sense of that”.
Beach Rats is out now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous