‘Beach Rats’ explores the quiet pains of sexual awakening
There is something so deeply heartbreaking about the silence with which one carries pain, the consuming numbness that occurs in reaction to the ache that burdens daily existence. And if the struggles adolescents face in today’s unforgiving world aren’t hard enough, they are amplified tenfold when placed in a context of queerness. This is at the core of Eliza Hittman’s sophomore effort, Beach Rats, in which Frankie, played brilliantly by newcomer Harris Dickinson, grapples with his sexual identity.
It’s hard not to view Beach Rats in light of Moonlight’s enormous success last year. The Best Picture winner paved the way for both independent cinema and LGBTQ+ cinema to feature in mainstream spotlights (think Call Me By Your Name, BPM, and the domination of independent movies in general this year). But there is a timidness and a subtlety to Beach Rats that mirrors the impression that Moonlight, specifically, leaves behind — perhaps even more strongly. In Frankie, the viewer is introduced to a troubled, conflicted teen fighting his burgeoning sexuality in the wake of his father’s illness. But what distinguishes Frankie from other such characters is how he reacts to his own actions.
The portrait that Hittman paints of Frankie is uncommon and refreshingly authentic. His becoming is wrought not with dramatic realisation, but with forceful nonchalance. He refuses to acknowledge his queerness, but is also unable to keep himself from random men he meets online. And Dickinson brings the character to life in a stunning feature film debut. A physical role that exudes mountains of emotions, Frankie comes alive in his small mannerisms, but otherwise drifts by, floating aimlessly with his band of hyper-masculine friends — or non-friends, as he repeatedly assures. Even the supporting cast don’t offer much substance (or any at all, really). And so it’s in this melancholy space that Frankie exists, a complete shell of himself, in a constant fight with his identity.
The result is a deeply unsettling look at queerness through the eyes of a product of society; a teenager unable to come to terms with himself. If anything, Beach Rats critiques the norms put in place to make the many Frankies of the world — LGBTQ+ individuals at large — feel so isolated, the self-loathing gradually increasing as they struggle in silence to reconcile who they are with who society expects them to be. What a profoundly sad thing it is to not be allowed to feel, and this silence in Beach Rats speaks volumes for those who cannot do exactly that.
The film’s presentation is a mundane as its plot. Driven much more by moods than actual events, the film is superbly shot. Hélène Louvart’s cinematography is sensual and intimate, and the lack of explicit sexual content also adds to the film’s tenderness.
The viewer is never fully invited into Frankie’s space, and so a rawness and mundaneness constantly take over the scenes, but it is in the small moments of yearning, the stolen glances of hope where Frankie begs for acceptance, that the space between the viewer and the title character is nonexistent, but it disappears as soon as it appears, and Frankie is left to start over, with more caution, less and less human.
By any measure, Eliza Hittman has created one of the better efforts this year, and a strong entry into the canon of queer cinema.