Set in provincial Brooklyn during the last days of summer, Beach Rats follows Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a 19-year-old who spends most of his time fooling around with his posse of friends and his girlfriend Simone (Madeline Weinstein). He lives at home with his mother (Kate Hodge), younger sister, and bed ridden father who has cancer. Unbeknownst to everyone around him he also messages men on an online chatroom and meets them on the side of the highway for casual sex. Unable to come to terms with the conflicted feelings he has, Frankie numbs himself with his father’s prescriptions that he uses recreationally.
Having previously directed It Felt Like Love, a film that similarly dealt with issues of sexuality and social expectations, Eliza Hittman’s follow-up is a sensitive and tactile look at adolescent identity and evasion. Like many coming-of-age-stories that concern themselves with the topic of sexuality, Beach Rats depicts a social environment that is hostile to those who do not fulfil expected gender roles. In Frankie we see a young man trapped by his environment and traditional ideas of masculinity. There are very obvious and understandable reasons why he is so reluctant to accept this side of himself. To do so would be to undermine the life and identity he has experienced up until this point. There may be nothing new in the film’s message but it does deliver it with refreshing energy and emotional sincerity.
Comparisons will inevitably be made with Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight. They may share similar subject matter but their approaches do vary noticeably. Beach Rats is less narratively focused and is characterised by a tonal nervousness that matches its central character’s outlook. In essence it is a tone poem interested in moments and feelings. Unlike most coming-of-age stories we do not see Frankie come to terms or overcome the issues he faces. Instead the film’s findings are much more inconclusive and the prospect of Frankie never truly accepting his sexuality is a real and sad possibility. It may be more likely that at some point his secret will be found out but this too is an undesirable and potentially brutal fate.
There is a lot to admire about Beach Rats even though it contains the odd flaw. Much like the last few weeks of summer, it can lull and begin to feel a bit repetitive. By the end there is a feeling that the film is covering familiar ground as the cycle of Frankie’s life continues as we have seen before. This may not be without affect, as it illustrates how he will repeatedly explore and repress his sexuality in the foreseeable future, but more could have been done to make the entire film as dynamic and emotive as the opening third.
Beach Rats is a realistic and empathetic look at sexuality and masculinity that is filled with a nervous energy. The latter scenes can feel a bit repetitive but overall the film remains poignant and emotionally engaging.
In cinemas from Friday 24th November