Roughly midway through writer-director Eliza Hittman’s multilayered Brooklyn drama “Beach Rats” (2017), protagonist Frankie (Harris Dickinson) shaves off most of his floppy blond hair. The new look he takes on and what it says about his character is rather difficult to read. Does it suggest that he has hardened? Is it a stripping down of Frankie’s various facades and turmoils? Or is it simply an opportunity for French cinematographer Hélène Louvart to allow a new look for filming the hot sun and neon lights of Brooklyn’s boardwalk glistening off his sweaty forehead in grainy 16mm? Perhaps there is not a larger reason. Perhaps it is simply because, as Frankie explains in one of the film’s most revealing scenes, he simply does not know what he wants.
“Beach Rats” follows the late-teenaged Frankie through a summer of upheaval in the eastern outskirts of Brooklyn as he deals with various personal crises. He struggles through the final days of his long-ailing father and clashes with his mother (Kate Hodge) over his lack of ambition. In the midst of his familial issues, he starts an ambivalent relationship with Simone (Madeline Weinstein) while also connecting with older men for trysts on remote beaches and at motels.
Since its Sundance premiere in January, Hittman’s film has attracted headlines for both its moody, atmospheric style of filmmaking and its rather startling depiction of anti-gay violence. “Beach Rats” is her second feature; her 2013 debut “It Felt Like Love” also garnered attention for its sexually-charged content.
Plot takes a backseat in the film; Hittman seems more concerned with placing Frankie in a specific context, despite the character’s resistance to categorization. He tiptoes on the boundaries between widely different worlds for much of the film, always retreating back to the muddled safety of his various doubts. He meets Simone under the fireworks on the boardwalk, but when he can’t perform in bed he mocks her and she storms out. He meets an older man online and they have sex in the low light of a dingy motel, but when they talk, he tells the man, “I don’t think of myself as gay.”
Hittman and Louvart expertly craft an ebbing atmospheric ambience out of the deep-seated confusion and contrast surrounding the protagonists’ world in “Beach Rats.” Neon lights emanating from the marquees of the boardwalk booths and convenience stores illuminate the characters’ faces in shades of blue and red as they obscure the shifting masses of people just behind them. The use of 16mm is particularly effective, illuminating each of the characters’ moves with a sense of confusion and closeness reminiscent of a home movie.
The mood of “Beach Rats,” however, is made all the more palpable by the mature, absorbing performance of British newcomer Dickinson as Frankie. In a film that relies so heavily on its protagonist to guide the film’s shifts in tone and emotion, Dickinson takes on the burden with the confidence and commitment of a well-heeled veteran. Each of his deliveries, movements, and looks conveys something more than itself and belies Frankie’s sometimes banal world.
As for Frankie’s banal world, it is one of white tank tops, seething testosterone, and boredom, as is so often seen in depictions of white working-class urban life. The disconnect between Frankie and his friends’ pursuit of girls, weed and occasional theft is beautifully melancholic to watch, especially as he flees from the truth about who he is and retreats back to the familiarity of his friends.
This contrast is what eventually leads the film to its violent conclusion, in which Frankie passively facilitates his friends’ beating and robbery of Frankie’s only suitor his own age. The ending has been criticized as predictable and cliché, following an age-old pattern in which queer characters’ narratives are eventually defined.
However, this criticism ignores Hittman’s decision to give a queer character like Frankie the agency to either allow or prevent this violence, which, of course, he squanders. It is somewhat of a shock to the audience, as Frankie’s friends are never presented as anything more malicious than a minor annoyance beforehand.
But it is Frankie’s complicity in this violence that leaves the most powerful impression. After lending such a degree of deference and compassion to Frankie in his constant waffling through different worlds and identities, the film finally forces him to make a choice, and he makes the wrong one. Behind the last shot of Frankie’s face, at a loss to understand his actions, is a uniquely tragic implication: that the pressure for anyone, not just Frankie, to claim a singular identity is enough to drive them to violence.