Beach Rats is written and directed by Eliza Hittman, whose previous work has dealt with the period of youth in which the discovery of sex and sexual preference is terrifying, awkward, unformed.
Hittman has an eye for making the mundane intimate and the intimate mundane. It’s an appropriate perspective for Beach Rats, a movie about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality in a hostile environment. It’s a story we’ve seen before, nonetheless told beautifully.
Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a teen living in a lower-class part of Brooklyn. He’s a rebel without a cause, but also without a whole lot of desire to figure out something else. He messes around, does drugs and, at night, logs into gay chat rooms to watch other men masturbate and occasionally hook up.
His desires are hidden from everyone, including Simone (Madeline Weinstein), his on-off girlfriend. Dickinson sells Frankie’s inner-turmoil, his understanding of who he “should” be with who he actually is. When Frankie hooks up with his one-night stands, the scenes are awkward, confused, expressions of his experience rather than lengthy sequences designed to titillate.
That isn’t to say Hittman doesn’t know how to photograph Dickinson; she simply treats the material with respect, empathy, patience.
When a new movie about LGBTQ relationships sees any sort of substantial release, there always comes with it an expectation that the movie hit all the right buttons. That it not only tells a compelling story but one suffused with broad significance, that it makes a statement.
This expectation seems to be much more common with movies about the lives of homosexual men than homosexual women — but even higher in movies featuring bisexual or trans characters because those movies rarely happen at all. It makes sense; the acceptance of lesbian relationships within overwhelmingly male-driven entertainment machine is even explicitly referenced in the trailer of Beach Rats.
There are no shortage of films expressing the same heteronormative experiences over and over and over again. Ideally this would be the case with non-heteronormative stories as well. This is all leading to the fact that ultimately Beach Rats never feels like it adds to this side of the genre in a way that feels revelatory. It’s a good movie — empathetic and beautifully shot — but the story isn’t much more beyond a young man understanding his own heart in a world that doesn’t want him to do so. So don’t walk in expecting much more.
I can’t speak to whether this either perpetuates harmful narratives or fills a much-needed void in a conversation because that is beyond my reckoning. I can say that if you’re searching for a new perspective on coming out or LGBTQ lifestyles, Beach Rats isn’t breaking new ground, and to some extent I’m afraid that will lead to it being buried when it doesn’t deserve to be.
The closest comparison I could think of when watching Beach Rats was Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame, in that both are slow, pensive takes on inner turmoil that eventually boil over. This doesn’t treat homosexual sex as violent expression like Shame (in my view the one flaw with that film), but is similarly expressive, ponderous and quiet.
It’s an art film, through and through.