Once in a while, a film comes along which nurses a bitter resentment towards the obligation all stories seem to be under to neatly tie up their narratives. These kinds of movies are refreshingly quiet in their understanding of the complex, confused nuance of human character and how messy the reality of telling their stories should be. They don’t pressure themselves to answer the questions that often life leaves unanswered.
Beach Rats, the second film from relative newcomer Eliza Hittman, is exactly this kind of movie. It portrays an empathetically lonely look into the internal conflict raging inside Frankie, a young man enduring a lonely summer in Brooklyn and struggling to balance two very different sides to his life. By day, he is a macho, hyper-masculine, drugged up delinquent who tailgates with his friends and courts young women by the funfair. However, at night he succumbs to his inner desires, rendezvousing with older men he meets on the internet in a nervous attempt to understand and come to terms with his burdening sexuality. There are many complications to Frankie, and Harris Dickinson, in his first feature film role gives us all of them and more, evoking each flicker of doubt, anger, frustration and insecurity with so much more weight than most actors his age would be able to. He lets go completely, giving into the role and allowing his eyes to explore the harsh, unforgiving environment his character finds himself in and portraying every confliction with a harrowing, pained honesty.
Toxic masculinity is given its due exploration as we spend time with Frankie, watching him try to slot into the fractured and fraught dynamic of his group of friends. There’s a seething undercurrent of competition between the guys, men in build and stature but still very much boys in face and mind – Hittman ensures there be an abundance of drawn out camera shots on their chiselled, muscular torsos as they play ball by the beach, dance with girls at a cruise ship party or put on a display of bravado as they compete to throw the heaviest punch at an arcade game by the pier. Frankie is suffocating in this environment which doesn’t allow him even the slightest opportunity to display vulnerability. This is only wound tighter in his home life, where he is forced into adopting the role of ‘man of the house’ as his father, terminally ill, lies dying in the living room.
The direction here is definitely benefited by its female eye, applying sympathetic touches as well as well-rounded nuances to all of the portrayals of the supporting women in the film. Frankie’s mom (Kate Hodge) is fleshed out, stoic and responsible yet evidently grieving for the sickness taking her husband and the narcotic fuelled disorder enveloping her boy. She senses a grievance within him, intuitively so, however is preoccupied with taking care of Frankie’s little sister, so allows it to simmer until it inevitably becomes an uglier problem than she anticipated. Frankie’s girlfriend is played with tangible remorse and longing by a stellar, bright Madeline Weinstein. It’s not through a lack of exposure to strong and interesting women that Frankie’s problems arise, rather the absence of a variety of diverse portraits of what masculinity can be defined as that his insecurities manifest.
The idea that coming out as gay in today’s society is no longer an issue is haplessly optimistic, especially in communities such as the one Frankie exists within. Testing the water with how he approaches the discussion with those around him, his face flickers with the predicted disappointment of each rebuff and rejection towards the idea of male queerness. It’s painful, brutal and cruel. It’s also unwaveringly honest.
There’s little easy resolve to a character with more soul-searching to do than the screen time can allow, and both Hittman and Dickinson account for this by leaving the story open ended, its conclusion very open to interpretation. Much like the pain which comes alongside finding what it means to own your authentic self, the film doesn’t make it an easy journey, aiming to sting, burn and bruise. It’s a battle worth fighting, for the candid, frank story and delightfully nervous uncertainty which pulsates in every shot, giving Beach Rats its buzzing energy and life.
Beach Rats is screening at Glasgow Film Theatre between the 24th – 30th of November. Anyone aged between 15 and 25 can get a free card from GFT that entitles them to £5.50 tickets to any standard screening.
By Maisie McGregor