In Beach Rats, we first meet Frankie (Harris Dickinson) in the flashes of a cellphone bouncing off a mirror as he poses for selfies. Chest, abdomen, arms — all gorgeously muscled and etched — and a face shadowed beneath a baseball cap. While Frankie might only appear as composite parts to the people he knows, the privileged film viewer learns right off that these pics are meant for the gay hookup site he uses to meet older men.
I say the people he knows because nobody knows Frankie, least of all Frankie. Over and over he’s asked what he likes, often by the men he meets who can’t believe their luck at scoring such an Adonis. “I don’t really know what I like,” he answers so often it becomes a refrain.
We believe him. Frankie drifts through his southshore Brooklyn neighborhood caught up in the current of three other guys his age. He doesn’t work. School is never mentioned. His mother (Kate Hodge), well-meaning and concerned, finds him a cypher. He never says what he wants, in fact he rarely speaks. And because he can’t tell anyone he’s gay we sense that Frankie has a long way to go before he moves beyond this static life and occasional secret forays into the dunes for anonymous sex.
Add to it that Frankie’s world is almost solely physical. He drinks and smokes weed, and steals pain pills from his dying father (Neal Huff). His three “friends” (he makes it a point to say they aren’t his friends, probably the most self-aware statement he utters) are all body as well. They’re shown doing pull-ups in subway cars, playing handball, and testing their young-man strength in carnival games.
“How do you feel?” is probably a question so alien to them it might as well be nuclear physics. Akin to one of their own being gay.
Frankie does possess a few saving graces. He’s not as completely brain-dead or callous as the losers he tags along with. Dickinson as Frankie delivers oceans of emotional current in the simplest glances and lip turns. It’s a wonder to behold an actor so young and so talented. Simone (Madeline Weinstein), the girl he dates, mainly because she wants him to, he treats poorly. At least he acts the gentleman and tries to make amends. Frankie is such a shell though, he can’t come up with much beyond what he’s learned from his hookups, which needless to say, are shockingly inappropriate dating techniques.
Beach Rats has been compared to last year’s Moonlight. Hittman possesses the same talent at revealing emotional points and whole stories through images instead of traditional narrative. Shot mostly in close and medium frames the film comes off as claustrophobic, as if the screen portrays Frankie’s psyche. It also mimics the way a person’s image might appear in a mirror. Never full, always cut off.
Curious objects mirrors. They suggest both revelation and concealment. Hittman deserves a wider audience after this film.
Both Beach Rats and Moonlight also deal with the elusive concept of self. Especially when that self seems more determined by how others perceive you or what society expects than what you might find inside. But where Moonlight purposely drew attention to the three-act story structure and its implicit promise of change, Beach Rats is more a character study.
If character is destiny, there might be little hope for Frankie. Repression only goes so far. Writing this review the day after I saw Beach Rats, I was reminded of Frank Bidart’s poem Queer. “For each gay kid…/the primary, the crucial/scenario/forever is coming out–/or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.”
Beach Rats Directed by Eliza Hittman. 98 min. In general release.