Disclosure: Tim League owns Birth.Movies.Death and co-owns NEON.
The boy sits alone in the basement, behind the blinding brightness of his family’s computer screen. Laid out before him are a myriad of options; live flesh positioning itself in front of tiny cameras, mounted onto machines used to transmit across chasms of loneliness. There’s a hesitance in the boy’s eyes as he scrolls, trying to choose which one of these men he’s going to flirt with tonight. When he finally does settle on a grinning hunk, he leans away from the monitor, letting the brim of his cap and the room’s engulfing darkness hide his face. The man on the other end of the screen asks him to lean forward and turn on the light, so he can see his suitor clearly. But the boy isn’t convinced he should, unsure who else might be watching.
Burgeoning sexuality is the cornerstone of many coming of age tales, but Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats presents Frankie (British actor Harris Dickinson) as a boy attempting to comprehend a persona he’s fairly certain cannot be revealed in public. Standing in front of the mirror, snapping harshly lit selfie after harshly lit selfie, the brim of his black baseball hat tilted so not only does it look cool, but also renders him anonymous, Hittman’s camera could become condescending toward this working class confusion case if it weren’t so loving, gliding over his taut muscles with a gaze that replicates the homosexual fantasy pinup Frankie sees himself as in his mind’s eye. Meanwhile, his father lies dying in a hospital bed upstairs, cancer eating away at his form and subconsciously creating a ticking clock in his son that the boy may not even recognize. However young he may be, time’s running out, and Frankie should probably get the fuck outta the closet before that invasive pestilence comes and decimates his own beautiful body.
The endless supply of painkillers Frankie’s father’s cancer provides helps to numb these desires somewhat, as he takes bumps with his troglodyte buddies before hitting the Coney Island boardwalk, the rest of his crew hoping to scope some tight pussy and maybe cop a quick jerk down on the sand below. For anyone who’s ever spent any amount of time on an East Coast shore, these doofs will feel eerily familiar. They’re the dumbasses who gather outside of blaring arcades, smoking joints and hollering at every girl who passes, calling strange guys “faggots” as a half-brained means to try and assert their own male dominance. Had Beach Rats been made at the height of Jersey Shore’s popularity, they’d all be sporting blow outs, fist pumping, and bellowing “GTL!” at the top of their lungs like some sort of reality TV cult. Here, they’re nothing more than rejects from a lost Larry Clark picture, and if Hittman’s movie stumbles, it's in merely presenting Frankie’s boys as nothing more than thematic window dressing to contrast with his blooming adoration of other hard male bodies.
Under one of the wearisomely “romantic” fireworks shows, Frankie meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein), a beautiful face who can’t help but be attracted to the youth’s gorgeous stoicism. The two begin a rather hot and cold relationship, as Frankie plays off his inability to perform in bed (even as she strips nude and does everything but shove his dick inside of her) as being “too fucked up.” But Frankie keeps coming back to Simone, ostensibly out of societal pressure and the guilt he feels. This tedious façade he calls a life renders his leading girls like her on a necessary dog and pony show for the cavemen he refuses to call “friends”. Simone is understanding at first, as Frankie is forthcoming about his dying father, if still completely unable to admit that he talks to other men, night in and out, hoping to work up the courage to finally meet up and let them inside.
Shot on hazy 16mm (by cinematographer Hélène Louvart) the comparisons to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight are going to be somewhat inevitable, as Beach Rats plays out with the same ethereal attention to detail regarding its subject’s struggles to cope with his own definition of masculinity within a societal set that rejects such a personalized delineation. However, Hittman’s movie is much more straightforward than Jenkins’ instant classic, leering on stolen touches between Frankie and Simone and the men he’ll later ride in cars with, out to remote stretches alongside the highway where they can fuck. Dickinson conveys Frankie’s fidgety unease with existence through a rotating collection of hardened glares, his eyes seeing beyond the frustrating work of community theater his days have become, and toward some semblance of honesty with both himself and the universe at large. But they’re also searching for any sort of guide that’ll tell him how to get to this other plane of being, and Dickinson’s blankness is a wonder of naturalistic acting; the type of everyday performance where the guy sitting next to you on the subway could be a movie star without ever knowing it himself.
In the end, the boy keeps coming back to the lie of the fireworks others line up to witness from the boardwalk, holding hands and placing their offspring up on shoulders so that they can get a better look. Frankie knows the heartbreaking truth behind these pyrotechnics displays. They’re the same every week – a multicolored misdirection that distracts from the melancholy monotony of life once the rides are shut off and the carnival music stops playing. A boardwalk is just planks of wood when it isn’t lit up, just as a beautiful body is no more than a human billboard on which Frankie paints his own lie every single day of the year. Beach Rats is a work of evocatively lyrical truth telling; unafraid to look itself in the mirror and wonder just what the fuck the point of anything is if we can’t be real with ourselves.