Frankie (Harris Dickinson), the main character in writer/ director Eliza Hittman’s phenomenal drama “Beach Rats,” doesn’t think of himself as gay but regularly cruises Brooklyn gay chat rooms. He cloaks himself in darkness on his webcam but is often persuaded to show more of his face and body.
When Frankie wants to convince a guy online to expose himself, he has trouble saying what he knows he wants — but eventually manages to get the words out. His conflicts form the backbone of this absorbing character study.
[Editor's note: Subsequent to the posting of this review, Duncan Osborne reported on what he learned about the making of this film and its clear ties to the killing of Michael Sandy, a black gay man lured to a Brooklyn beach in 2006.]
Hittman brings no judgment but tremendous intimacy to her look at Frankie at a critical juncture in his life. She is less interested in telling a coming-out story than in exploring the Janus-faced nature of a broke, bored, and horny guy. Frankie moves from a homosocial world hanging out with his handball buddies, Jesse (Anton Selyaninov), Nick (Frank Hakaj), and Alexei (David Ivanov), to the furtive space online where he can explore his same-sex desires. Of course, these two worlds will collide.
The filmmaker coaxes an exceptional performance from Dickinson, who is onscreen in just about every scene. The British actor, who has a commanding presence, is convincing as a working-class Brooklynite — sexy and moody and able to communicate Frankie’s thoughts and emotions through the blankest of expressions. His vacant stares speak volumes about his anxieties and internal conflicts.
“Beach Rats” is focused more on mood than plot, which works in its favor. The film’s look is textured — whether in showing the shirtless buff boys, the plumes of smoke exhaled in a vape shop they frequent, or in Frankie simply sitting in the rain at a particularly downbeat moment. Hittman captures the rhythms and tactile sensations of the Coney Island boardwalk with aplomb, bringing authenticity to the noise of arcade games and even to the feel of the waves when Frankie and his pals, in their underwear, jump around in the ocean and to the smell of hotdogs. In his claustrophobic house and at the seedy motel and dark beach dunes at night where he meets his sex partners, the environments surrounding Frankie and the other characters inform the stories of lives lived on the margins.
Frankie meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein) at the Coney Island fireworks and takes her home, where she makes clear she wants to have sex. He doesn’t — and takes an easy way out, saying he is too wasted when she strips off his shorts and finds him limp. Frankie then mocks her, rudely, angering her, but he later apologizes and takes her out on a real date. But he continues cruising for men and meeting them, and despite his macho swagger, he plays the bottom in these encounters. Preoccupied with the chat rooms, Frankie’s relationship with Simone suffers.
Dating Simone is a cover for Frankie’s queer desires, and insecurities keep him from coming out. Behind his cocky façade, he is scared and unmoored — out of school, without a job or any money, and with no real thoughts about the future. His whole life in front of him, all Frankie wants to do is get high and escape.
A subplot involving Frankie’s family reveals other pressures in his life. His father (Neal Huff) is dying from cancer, and Frankie frequently steals his medication to remain comfortably numb. His mother, Donna (Kate Hodge), may or may not be fully aware of her son’s drug use but she does voice concern when Frankie comes home early one morning high as a kite. Their relationship has moments of mutual concern, but she also rides him hard once she understands how aimless and self-destructive he is.
Hittman is relentless in depicting Frankie’s life, and Dickinson so fully realizes the character’s internal conflicts that it becomes difficult to watch as he boxes himself in with his family, with Simone, with his buddies who want him to score them drugs, and in his secret sexual encounters. His despair transparent, Frankie is a sympathetic character whose breakdown of sorts on a party boat is so intense it will have viewers craving relief for this troubled character.
“Beach Rats” traverses familiar coming-of-age territory — Hittman also brilliantly explored a teenage girl’s sexual awakening in her debut feature, “It Felt Like Love” — but here the realism and emotional rawness set “Beach Rats” apart. Don’t miss this movie.
BEACH RATS | Directed by Eliza Hittman | Neon | Opens Aug. 25 | Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves.; landmarkth