Frankie (Harris Dickinson), the main character in writer/director Eliza Hittman’s phenomenal drama “Beach Rats,” opening Sept. 8 at Ritz Theatres, doesn’t think of himself as gay, but he regularly cruises gay Brooklyn chat rooms. He cloaks himself in darkness on his webcam and is often prompted by guys to show more of his face and body. When Frankie asks a guy he meets online to expose himself, he is embarrassed by (or ashamed of) his desires to articulate what he knows he wants — but he eventually relents. His conflicted nature forms much of this absorbing character study.
Hittman portrays a critical period of Frankie’s life with tremendous intimacy and a total lack of judgment. She seems less interested in telling a coming-out story, and more keen on exploring the Janus-faced nature of a guy who is bored, broke and horny. Frankie may enjoy the public homo-social environment of hanging out with his handball buddies Jesse (Anton Selyaninov), Nick (Frank Hakaj) and Alexei (David Ivanov), but he also craves privately exploring his same-sex passions. Of course, those two worlds will collide.
The filmmaker coaxes an exceptional performance from Dickinson, who is on screen in just about every scene. The British actor, who has a commanding screen presence, is truly convincing as a working-class Brooklynite. Dickinson is sexy and moody, and able to communicate Frankie’s thoughts and emotions through the blankest of expressions. His vacant stares palpably suggest his anxiety and internal conflict.
“Beach Rats” is focused more on mood than plot, which works in its favor. The film is full of textures, from the shirtless boys and their buff bodies to the plumes of smoke that are exhaled in a vape shop the characters frequent to Frankie sitting in the rain at a particularly downbeat time in his life. Hittman also captures the rhythm of Coney Island and the boardwalk’s tactile sensations with noticeable aplomb. From the noise of arcade games to the smell of hotdogs or the feel of the waves when Frankie and his pals jump around in the ocean in their underwear, there is an incredible authenticity. The environments, from Frankie’s claustrophobic house to the seedy motel or dark beach dunes at night where Frankie has his assignations, also inform much about the characters, whose lives are very much on the margins.
The story has Frankie meeting Simone (Madeline Weinstein) under the Coney Island fireworks and taking her home, where she makes it clear she wants to have sex. He doesn’t and takes an easy way out, saying he is too wasted when she strips off his shorts and sees his limp dick. While she is angry with him — Frankie mocks her, rudely — he later apologizes and takes her out on a real date. Nevertheless, Frankie still cruises for guys online, meeting various men for sex. Despite his macho swagger, Frankie is passive when it comes to gay sex, and active when it comes to oral sex. Suffice it to say, his relationship with Simone soon suffers as his interests lie elsewhere.
Frankie dating Simone is certainly a cover for his queer desires, and yet his reluctance to come out stems from an insecurity that is alluded to throughout the film. While Frankie may come off as being a bit cocky, it’s likely a façade; he is scared and unmoored; he is out of school, without a job or any money, and with no real thoughts about the future. Frankie should have his whole life in front of him, and yet all he wants to do is get high and escape from himself.
“Beach Rats” also features a subplot involving Frankie’s family that reveals some of the pressures in his life. His father (Neal Huff) is dying from cancer, and he frequently steals his dad’s medication to remain comfortably numb. Frankie’s mother, Donna (Kate Hodge), may or may not be fully aware of her son’s drug use, but she does express concern for Frankie when he comes home early in the morning, high as a kite. Their relationship has moments of mutual concern, but she starts to ride him harder once she sees how aimless and self-destructive Frankie is.
Hittman’s strength as a filmmaker is her absolutely relentless depiction of Frankie’s life. (This is a supreme compliment). She and Dickinson so fully realize the extent of his internal conflict that it becomes extremely difficult to watch as he makes bad decisions as he feels boxed into a corner by his family, by Simone, by his buddies (who want him to score them drugs) and by his same-sex assignations. Viewers will feel for Frankie, who is sympathetic because his despair is so transparent. When he does have a breakdown of sorts on a party boat one night, the sequence of events is so intense that viewers, like Frankie, will be craving relief. Such is the unshakable power of Hittman’s film and Dickinson’s unforgettable performance.
“Beach Rats” may traverse familiar coming-of-age territory; Hittman also brilliantly explored a teenage girl’s sexual maturation in her fantastic debut feature, “It Felt Like Love.” But the realism of the atmosphere and the rawness of the emotion make “Beach Rats” feel fresh and exciting. Don’t miss it.