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.