Beach Rats (2017)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Newcomer Harris Dickinson gives a fearless, must-see performance in the leading role.
Writer/director Eliza Hittman's film is bold and brave, Beach Rats may live in a lot of darkness, but light is never too far out of reach.
Definitely controversial and provocative, Beach Rats mixes sex, violence, depression, and longing into a potent stew that will leave you thinking and contemplating well after the film comes to an end.
Hittman struggled to answer questions during a Q&A at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and some have categorized the film as one of a growing number of films and television shows embracing something of a #BuryYourGays tone.
The frank and unflinching nature of the film is going to perhaps upset and anger viewers, anticipating something more sympathetic and inviting.
Independent cinema, no matter how much buzz the film may be getting, is something you have no desire in watching - no matter topics, themes, or subject matter.
At the Sundance Film Festival, Beach Rats writer and director Eliza Hittman told a polarized and divided audience, "I'm interested in taboos as a filmmaker." With her second feature film, following 2013's It Felt Like Love, she locks our attention upon Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a 19-year-old boy, living at home, and trying to sort through a lot of difficult emotions in a rather chaotic personal life.
In and around a not-so-inviting South Brooklyn landscape, Frankie pals around with his friends - drinking, smoking, partying, and all the rest - and, privately, secretly searches for hook-ups and connections in male chat rooms on the internet. He hides this secretive nature from his friends, initially having discreet webcam interactions in his bedroom, and eventually stepping forward and arranging trysts with strangers in secluded parks and remote locations.
Frankie is living a life he has not fully come to terms with and yet hurtles towards it every chance he gets. When visiting a chat room, Frankie is asked by a webcam model what he likes. After a pause, he steadies his jaw and in a moment of monotone vulnerability, he replies, "I don't know what I like."
As Beach Rats moves through its narrative, Frankie is not someone we adhere to all that easily. He steals pain medication from his father, home and in hospice, dying of cancer. He is ill-formed, haphazard and impulsive. However, Dickinson retains an innocence of youth, and a hardened body and stature of a man, creating a visual paradox for the viewer.
Empathy and sympathy arrive once we realize everything he is wrestling with, but he also stumbles into a relationship with Simone (Madeline Weinstein), which he tries to invest in, but can also do so half-heartedly. Simone is attracted to Frankie and is willing to consummate things right away, but Frankie seems unable or unwilling to do so. They break up, he apologizes for being so cold and distant. Simone represents, sadly, less a love interest and more a tool for him to cling on to, allowing a little more of a buffer from him and his friends. Simone is both a safety and a painful reminder of what internal battles he fights each and every day.
Hittman drives us headlong into Frankie's world, giving us a wide-ranging, all encompassing view of his day-in, day-out challenges. Clearly he is gay, but he is convinced that he cannot be out. The risk of meeting strangers on the internet and having secret trysts proves to be a better and safer alternative to telling his friends who he truly is.
Frankie wears this badge painfully and Dickinson's wide-eyed and suppressed carnal energies, coupled with his closeted, tight-jawed "one of the boys" outward presentation, allows the young actor the opportunity and range to deliver a searing, difficult, and powerful performance.
Well-written and well-acted, Hittman's screenplay is strong, if not a bit repetitive in building to a final sequence that is rather hard to watch. Without any spoilers, Frankie can only separate his two existences for so long, and a jaw-dropping moment leaves you heartbroken, angry, or both.
This is what the audience was speaking to at Sundance, and what others have pointed to in the months since the film premiered; a feeling that the visceral nature of the film's final minutes cloud over everything else the film was attempting to show and/or communicate.
Calling to mind the 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight, co-writer and director Barry Jenkins found a way to evoke and illustrate the constrained pain and anguish over being gay, in a culture and a world that has frequently and routinely denigrated the lifestyle. Beach Rats provides something less polished, but similar. Frankie's inability to find the peace, to seek acceptance, having to sneak around and lie to his friends and family, keeps the pain away on a surface-level, but only takes root in his gut. Something will have to give.
Hittman's script paces well, her camera locks in on tight close-ups, uses shallow lighting, and an unflinching and unwavering gaze upon Frankie's world. Frankie has nothing really to keep him at home, except his late night webcamming. His mother is seemingly biding the time for the inevitable reality of what's to come and seems more connected to her daughter than her son. Frankie is left to largely do what he wants, whenever he wants.
Beach Rats has important things to say and I admire how it tries to present them. Harris Dickinson's performance is one of the year's best, and feels real, true, and pure to its core (even if he is a straight British actor playing the part). If the film struggles to connect all of the dots along the way, much of that can be forgiven with a central character feeling walled in and peering out in a mix of fear and angst and put upon male masculinity.
By the end, those masculine traits may lead to a ruinous conflict, but Beach Rats is not ever trying to be a nice or safe film. Say what you will about the lingering aftertaste of what is depicted here: Hiding in the shadows, illicit behavior, closing down emotionally, lashing out, desperately trying to hold on to something safe that can be counted on. We can track with some of those emotions, no matter our backgrounds, lifestyles, or place in life.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Nicole Flyus, Anton Selyaninov, Frank Hakaj, David Ivanov, Harrison Sheehan, Erik Potempa.
Director: Eliza Hittman
Written by: Eliza Hittman
Release Date: August 25, 2017