(Premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Beach Rats, Eliza Hittman’s second feature is a stunning portrait of a young man’s struggle to understand his emerging sexual identity. Our Mike S. Ryan was ultimately moved by the film but his personal responses to the film caused him to examine what worked and didn’t.)
*** SPOILER ALERT: THIS REVIEW GIVES AWAY SIGNIFICANT PLOT INFORMATION***
Beach Rats, Eliza Hittman’s second feature takes her back to the Brooklyn beach community of her first film (It Felt Like Love) in a sympathetic portrait of a young repressed homosexual male, who finds himself caught up in a gay bashing incident.
In 2001 I was location manager for The Laramie Project and had the difficult job of preparing the town of Laramie Wyoming for the upcoming filming of the Matthew Shepard story in which a local college homosexual was beaten to death by two townies. I was tasked with getting the local public officials to allow us to recreate actual scenes in the streets and courthouse as well as inside bars and restaurants. In the course of my meeting many of the people who knew both Matthew Shepard and his killers I came to face another perspective on what happened that fateful night. The alternate perspective that was presented to me by the locals, was that one of the killers was in a closeted physical relationship with Matthew and the killing was an outburst of repressed, drug fueled, homosexual rage. While I was watching Beach Rats I often felt I was watching The Laramie Project in reverse via a sympathetic dramatization of the pain of an emerging gay teen who must keep his true urges buried. The two actual violent incidents are quite different but the end result in both situations is that a gay man is victimized for his sexuality.
The film is a powerful and compelling portrait of Frankie, a handsome and quiet 19 year old played by British trained actor Harris Dickinson who stars in his first feature film role. By night Frankie cruises the gay social media hook up sites which occasionally leads him to sexual encounters in the park, usually with older men. By day he hangs out with his local gold chain wearing cronies and has to navigate the romantic pursuits of a sassy, sexually experienced girl his age, confidently played by Madeline Weinstein. Frankie attempts to play his role as the straight boyfriend but he is doomed to fail and we empathize with him as struggles to hide his true feelings.
As in her first film It Felt Like Love, Hittman brilliantly captured the awkward rituals of adolescent romantic socialization not through dialogue, but through gesture, actions and posture. In Beach Rats, she combines both professional actors with local non-actors and the result is even more compelling than her first film. It’s not what is said that conveys the tortures of this age, rather it is what is not said and this is what makes her method so purely cinematic.
We are fully sympathetic to the pain of Frankie as he tries desperately to keep his urges secret and we deeply feel for him as he struggles alone to understand his world. But when Frankie finds himself involving his straight friends in a scheme that will get them drugs through him baiting their anti gay bigotry, I felt myself pushing against the “make no judgment” assumptions of Hittman toward her characters. It is at this point that I started to flash back to my painful time in Laramie and this alternate perspective of events which the locals had tried to get me to accept.
The first question for Hittman from the audience at the Sundance screening I attended was “why did you make an anti-gay film?” She responded by of course saying that was not her intention and that in this Brooklyn community, coming out was not an option for Frankie. That of course is not true as Manhattan is filled with people who ran from repressive small towns seeking refuge and community in The Big City. But, the question does point likewise to my struggle in the end to reconcile Frankie’s actions and his repression with the reality of the violence that often emerges from men who try to stifle their homosexuality. I felt myself wanting more evidence that Frankie would move positively out of this stage in his life and that this tragedy, which he brought upon an innocent gay man, would move him closer to acknowledging his own homosexuality.
In the last moments of the film we are aware that he is upset over what has happened but I found myself wanting more. Perhaps just a close-up of the pain in his eyes? But in the end I felt the non-judgmental distance of the filmmaker from her subject, was in this case, not enough for me on a dramatic level. I am usually not someone who demands characters to learn a lesson or to modulate or change, but the intersection of this sympathetic character with a very real, common and violent gay bashing made me feel extremely awkward and I’m not sure that the film fully recognizes this dramatic dilemma. Frankie is in pain, this is for sure, but in the end I found my heart going out more to the victim of his callous actions than to Frankie himself and for this reason the ending of the film feels unintentionally unbalanced.
Despite this issue for me, Beach Rats was the most powerful film of the 22 films I saw at Sundance this year. The film combines both documentary authenticity and a lyrical pace and eye that evokes films like Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. The 16mm cinematography by Hélène Louvart is outstanding and Eliza Hittman is a significant cinematic visionary whose film marks the debut of a compelling new talent in actor Harris Dickinson.
– Mike S. Ryan