Beach Rats

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Harris Dickinson, Frank Hakaj, David Ivanov and Anton Selyaninov in Beach Rats - an aimless teenager on the outer edges of Brooklyn struggles to escape his bleak home life and navigate questions of self-identity, as he balances his time between his delinquent friends, a potential new girlfriend, and older men he meets online.
"British actor Dickinson – surely on the first step to a lot more film roles – slides seamlessly into Frankie’s groove, the accent and the body language spot on."

There was a sense of gay coming-of-age stories coming-of-age at Sundance (and Berlin) this year. Of course, there have been some excellent LGBT films in recent years – with the Oscar-winning Moonlight and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend just two of those showing it’s possible for these stories to break out of the arthouse. But each of the four I watched across the festivals – Beach Rats, Call Me By Your Name, The Wound and God’s Own Country – despite dealing with familiar themes such as identity conflict and first love had a strongly individual perspective that swept away any notion of cliché.

Beach Rats is also unusual in that the director is a woman, Eliza Hittman, a fact that surely benefits the secondary female characters here, each of whom is as fully living and breathing as the central protagonist Frankie and, because of that, his choices and world he inhabits feel all the more real.

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Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is tough, at least on the outside, although there’s a certain nervousness about him betrayed by little things, such as the way he chews at his necklace. “I don’t know what I like,” he says. In fact, what he doesn’t like is probably easier to catalogue. Certainly not his home, in a downbeat part of Brooklyn, where his dad lies dying – although grinding up his cancer pills and snorting them holds a certain escape and lends him additional cache with his friends. He also doesn’t like, or at least would like to escape from, his gay sexual urges. Although he arranges hookups in barren spaces with older guys, flicking through their naked videos first on his home computer, he is also trying to ‘fit in’ with his gang, striking up a relationship with Simone (Madeline Weinstein), who has all the self-assurance he lacks.

The ideas and pressures of masculinity are everywhere, from the need to offer the strongest punch at a booth in the Coney Island fairground to the expectation of ‘becoming the man of the house’ when his father finally dies and even in Simone’s suggestion that it’s generally down to the guy to offer “protection” when having sex. Hittman gives us a claustrophobic sense of the psychological warfare being waged behind Frankie’s often blank exterior and which occasionally manifests itself in the outside world, particularly when he is confronted with his younger sister making her first steps into her own sexuality. Although there will be dramatic conflict in the film’s final third, it is the internalised battle that holds the tension. This sense of intensity is magnified by cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who gets her camera so close during some encounters that the image becomes almost impressionistic.

British actor Dickinson – surely on the first step to a lot more film roles – slides seamlessly into Frankie’s groove, the accent and the body language spot on. And if the gang collective don’t make so much of an impression beyond the group it is less because of a lack of care on the part of Hittman than because we are seeing this world as Frankie sees it, with them as the pack that he needs to run with rather than as individuals. Hittman keeps us in his head, feeling his choices and daring us to offer an easy answer for a conundrum that he can’t work out himself.

Reviewed on: 06 Mar 2017
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Beach Rats packshot
A Brooklyn teen struggles with his sexuality.

Director: Eliza Hittman

Writer: Eliza Hittman

Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Neal Huff

Year: 2017

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US


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