In Beach Rats, a 17-year-old guy named Frankie meets a girl named Simone on the Coney Island boardwalk, under the fireworks, and brings her home. It’s been a slow summer. There’s been nothing else to do—or, rather, nothing Frankie and his crew seem compelled to do—but lounge shirtless and disaffected on the beach, bouncing from vape shop to boardwalk and back again, high on whatever drugs they can find. Frankie, played with beguiling candor by newcomer Harris Dickinson, has got a father on his deathbed, a mother at her wit’s end, and a younger sister who’s started to notice boys—just as Frankie has. Bringing Simone home simply isn’t the win he needs it to be. “Do you think I’m pretty?” Simone (Madeline Weinstein) asks that night in his bedroom, when Frankie can’t get hard. “Do you think I’m pretty?” Frankie says, mockingly, holding her bra to his chest. “Are you fishing for compliments?” Pretty is beside the point.
Frankie isn’t a bad guy or a good guy: he’s a guy. And Beach Rats, the second feature from Brooklyn-based indie director Eliza Hittman, is a close study of what that means. By day, Frankie is as much of an aimless youth as he is a walking avatar of outer-borough masculinity. He and his friends—all white, presumably straight guys his age—are long-limbed and lean, semi-athletic, neither dumb nor particularly smart. Frankie seems especially purposeless and anxious for distraction—getting by, day to day, on his father’s pain meds, as if to take a back seat to the goings-on of the world. He has seemingly no ambitions—that is, until night hits. Then, sitting at his computer in the dark of his parents’ basement, with a snapback practically pulled over his eyes to obscure his face, he logs into a site called Brooklyn Boys, a cam-to-cam chatroulette for local men looking for sex with other men.
It’s a ritual. A guy camming online will ask Frankie if he likes what he sees. “I don’t know what I like,” Frankie will say, and you begin to wonder whether anyone has ever asked him that before. What does he like? Hittman assigns the question genuine existential weight—and a sense of danger. You realize Frankie seems prone to trying almost anything. He meets up with a few men to have sex, more often than not in public places, getting in cars with strangers almost every time. It’s seedy. But it’s full of possibility, too. As in her first feature, It Felt Like Love, about a teen girl who wants to have sex with an older guy to fit in with her friends, Hittman enlivens a rote story of sexual discovery with a sense of danger and the unknown—it all feels a little electric, a little desperate, and very unpredictable, prone to easily slipping beyond her protagonist’s control. Frankie doesn’t tell anybody about his life after dark, or even seem to process it. Even his seeming penchant for older men is, he says, a strategy for keeping his worlds apart: older men don’t know his friends. Late in the movie, however, those two worlds converge. It’s a crisis that clarifies the difference between what Frankie wants and what, finally, he’ll choose to show to others.
It’d be one thing if Beach Rats were a movie about outright self-loathing—something of a dead horse, frankly, in gay coming-of-age stories, particularly those about men. Frankie is, to be clear, a little uncertain about who he is. But he’s also curious. And thanks to Hittman, who won a directing award at Sundance in January, we’re curious, too. She told Vulture recently that her inspiration for the movie was an image: a shirtless selfie, eyes covered, that was posted on Facebook by a beach-dwelling guy from Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn. It struck her as oddly vulnerable. There was, she says, “a feeling that he was hiding something because his eyes were in the shadow of this visor. He was about 19 years old and he looked dangerous and fragile at the same time.” She, her gangbusters cinematographer Hélène Louvart, and Dickinson replicate the image almost point by point, with Frankie’s camera flash in the mirror further obscuring his face. It’s a classic masculine pose, all muscled anonymity and attitude, but it’s also, as Hittman suggests, complicated by fear. There’s a sense of the unknown to a photograph like this, and that unknown isn’t limited to the shadow hanging over the subject’s face. It’s a question of what he sees, not just of what we see.
It’s apt that Hittman was inspired by a photograph: Her movie is uncannily sensitive to how young people understand themselves through images. And not only literal photographs, though they’re a big factor. Simone and Frankie date, for example—or try to—and by the morning after Simone’s first sleepover, they’re already posing in Frankie’s mirror as a couple. She’s got his snapback on; he, free to be straight by day, is willing to show his face. It’s the radical opposite of his other life. Elsewhere, Hittman picks up on glints and glimmers of shared behavior among Frankie and his friends: torsos that move in unison, legs and hands that shake with bored agitation at the same time and in the same way. Hittman trains her camera’s eye on the parts of boys you start to notice when you start to notice boys. And part of the lesson here is a reminder of what makes all bodies a source of erotic imagination, to begin with: She reminds us who does the looking, and why.
But what also emerges is the prevailing sense that masculinity is something learned—put-on and performed for the sake of fitting in with others. Frankie’s other life throws that into question. It’s a Gender Studies 101 trope, to be sure, but rarely has a movie made us understand this so naturally, as truth rather than theory.
Beach Rats isn’t a thesis. But it does have ideas about sexuality and, ultimately, the thin line between danger and desire. That, I think, is what sets Hittman apart. The movie ends on a dark note, with a stunning act involving Frankie’s friends and one of his hookups—I won’t spoil it here. For some, it’ll be a mood-killer, and maybe even a dishonest departure from who Frankie is. For me, it played like a logical, if unforeseeable endpoint to what was lingering all along. Like Beach Rats overall, the ending is a reminder of what can happen when a director trusts us enough not to offer easy takeaways and psychological absolutes. What happens when a character who doesn’t know what he wants loses control over what little understanding he already has? It’s a crisis, and a risk, and Beach Rats navigates both with the best of them.