The first moments of Beach Rats are lit by the harsh glare of a cellphone flash bouncing off a bathroom mirror, as the chiseled Frankie (Harris Dickinson) takes selfie after selfie, his baseball cap obscuring most of his face. It’s an image that could easily come off as patronizing—the introduction of a preening, superficial young man, defining himself through the lens of a camera—but the film’s director, Eliza Hittman, has deeper goals. Locked away in this dark room, his eyes hidden from view, Frankie is grasping for a persona he can barely express in public, wrestling with his sexuality in ways his friends and family can’t understand.
Beach Rats is part slice-of-life Brooklyn drama, following Frankie and his friends as they stroll around the Coney Island boardwalk aimlessly, and part erotic art film, as Frankie struggles to come to terms with being gay. Hittman’s second film (after the similarly sexually charged 2013 drama It Felt Like Love), Beach Rats is a moody experience, light on plot and heavy on state of mind, guiding viewers through Frankie’s neon-lit world, where everything more than five feet away is obscured in darkness.
The movie is shot with grainy 16-millimeter film, and there’s a quiet confusion to much of the story, which takes place largely at night by Brooklyn’s beaches, where unseen waves crash in the distance. Frankie lives at home with his family, where his father is dying of cancer, and spends the day ambling around the neighborhood with his always shirtless friends, in search of weed and other cheap thrills. Unlike many a working-class Brooklyn drama, in Beach Rats the youths are very passive, mostly just mumbling dumb jokes at each other rather than engaging in testosterone-fueled one-upmanship.
At a beachside fireworks show, Frankie meets a girl, Simone (Madeline Weinstein), who tries to kindle a romance with this stoic Adonis. He runs pretty hot and cold, sometimes rebuffing her rather than explaining why he struggles to perform in bed, and other times clinging to her through a mix of guilt and social pressure. Throughout the film, he also browses online gay chatrooms and meets with random older men from the internet, who consistently ask what he’s looking for. “I’m not sure what I like,” Frankie demurs, over and over, partly copping to his own inexperience and partly denying a deeper truth about himself.
The hazy photography (of the cinematographer Hélène Louvart) recalls Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, another coming-of-age gay drama that was shot in 16-millimeter, but Louvart is far more focused on the aesthetics of Frankie and his friends, capturing their bodies from all angles as they roam the beach, seemingly entirely comfortable with the way they look. Hittman contrasts this attitude with Frankie’s jumbled interiority—his discomfort with Simone anytime she initiates intimacy, his nervousness when he meets with other men. The director gets so much from Dickinson’s expressive face, drawing out every nervous tremble and flicker of fear in his eyes.
Dickinson, a young British actor with a few TV credits to his name, is quite a find, and he magnifies Beach Rats’s best moments, keeping Frankie from feeling like a sad, doe-eyed stereotype. There are moments of subtle aggression and direct nastiness, tempered with other scenes of (sometimes literally) naked vulnerability. Hittman’s impressions of Coney Island, just a couple neighborhoods south of where she grew up in Flatbush, are similarly nuanced, avoiding the more obvious imagery of it as a tinny, honky-tonk playground.
The film does, unfortunately, swerve into clichéd plot territory for its third act, seeking to bring some closure to Frankie’s attempts to lead a double life. Most irritatingly, Hittman suddenly brings his once passive cadre of friends into the foreground and has them behave like the bullies she had previously avoided reducing them to. There are notes of conflict that ring false and a closing scene of violence that’s hardly graphic, but the film ends on too easy a conclusion, a sort of spiritual punishment for Frankie’s ongoing denial of self.
It’s a predictable turn of events—Frankie’s attempts to hide so much of himself away can’t last forever—but since Hittman avoids such heavy-handedness throughout, the finale feels especially disappointing. But Beach Rats still lingered in my brain after I saw it, mostly for those quieter shots of Frankie’s face etched with emotions that were harder to pigeonhole. Hittman, and Dickinson, should have bright futures ahead of them, but it will be hard for either of them to make a work this boldly memorable.