Beach Rats: Old School Meets New School in Tantalizing, Sundance-Fêted Feature

By Liam Lacey

(RATING: A-)

Beach Rats, which won the directing prize at Sundance last January for New York filmmaker Eliza Hittman, is very much a film as artefact, not just a filmed drama but a sequence of images to contemplate.  

Though its story of a teenaged tough struggling with his sexuality is contemporary, the style is low-fi, luxurious, retro. Shot on 16mm film by cinematographer Hélène Louvart — known for her documentary work such as Wim Wenders’ Pina and Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes — Beach Rats has a grainy, painterly sense of depth and texture, especially its frequent night scenes.

Beach Rats: lovely to look at, dangerous to engage.

Beach Rats: lovely to look at, dangerous to engage.

The setting is Brooklyn — not the hipster Brooklyn of mismatched designer furniture and hand-crafted lattes — but the historic working-class borough. Still, Beach Rats does have a distressed look, especially the time-warp of the titular setting, the Coney Island beach where Frankie (exceedingly handsome English actor Harris Dickinson) and his out-of-school, non-working pals waste away their summer, lifting weights, vaping weed, and chasing girls. 

With their uniform short-clipped hair, tank tops, neck chains and tough-guy pouts, the guys appear from another era. They could have stepped out of the cast of West Side Story or more precisely, Bruce Davidson’s 1959 photo series, Brooklyn Gang. Their world is homo-social, not homosexual, but they carry themselves with swagger and style and the camera frankly ogles their fit young bodies. 

At home, Frankie’s overtaxed mother (Kate Hodge) worries about his late nights and drug use but barely has time to deal with him.  Frankie’s dad is dying of cancer in palliative care, while Frankie’s adolescent younger sister worries about important things like when she can get a bellybutton ring. The father’s illness (I thought of Tony Richardson’s classic, The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Runner) exists as a plausible explanation for Frankie’s acting out.

Because Frankie’s friends are watching, and because it’s what guys do, he asks out a girl, Simone (Madeline Weinstein) who has singled him out. “Do you think I’m pretty?” she asks as they lie in bed. “Do you think I’m pretty?” he mocks her. After a break-up and reunion and another confusing night, the pragmatic Simone seems to clue in: Frankie may be a James Dean dreamboat but as a boyfriend, he’s the kind of fixer-upper than can’t be fixed.

We, the voyeuristic viewers, already know the truth: that Frankie has a double life. At night, on his basement desktop computer, he checks out online gay chat rooms (nothing as obvious as using a gay dating app on his phone). Tentative onscreen interactions with older men soon progress to night-time assignations on the beach. Why older men? Because they’re less likely to know anyone he knows, Frankie tells one of his dates. In his mind, Frankie isn’t gay — he’s just a dude who feels the need to have sex with older men sometimes.

Inevitably, Frankie’s straight life with his bros and his nightlife with his older men collide, and his compartmentalized psyche can’t deal with the internal dissonance and peer pressure. There has been some backlash about Beach Rats as another gay story from a straight filmmaker that ends in violence. The director has argued in response that Frankie is actually more questioning than gay, and his future orientation remains an open question.

From an aesthetic perspective, at least, the conclusion of Beach Rats is consistent with the anachronistic tone of Beach Rats. This is a film that feels as though it was recovered from rusty canisters buried under the Coney Beach boardwalk: An odd, uncovered treasure.

Beach Rats. Written and directed by Eliza Hittman. Starring Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, and Kate Hodge. Opens September 22 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.