Two consistent elements mark Eliza Hittman’s two features to date, It Felt Like Love and now Beach Rats. First is the highly sexual nature of the maturity both films chronicle, with prepubescent Lila (Gina Piersanti) in It Felt Like Love trying to basically force her way into her sexuality, while Frankie (Harris Dickinson) in Beach Rats struggles with his sexual identity, cruising for older men online while trying to maintain a heterosexual relationship with Simone (Madeline Weinstein). The other steady characteristic of Hittman’s films is her style: an intuitive approach that seemingly snatches moments of offhand beauty from the air.
That roving eye for the ineffable can be seen not only in the way fireworks in Coney Island explode behind characters in the air, or vape smoke wafts into the ether in slow-motion, but in the way cinematographer Hélène Louvart, shooting in grittily textured 16mm, captures male bodies in motion. Beach Rats often recalls Claire Denis’s 1999 masterpiece Beau Travail in its overt homoeroticism, with Agnès Godard’s capturing of topless army men engaging in calisthenics finding an equivalent in Frankie and his three male friends walking down the Brooklyn streets or doing impromptu pull-ups on a subway train. Frankie is surrounded by machismo, which makes his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality all the more understandable without Hittman turning the film into a heavy-handed “issues” movie.
While Hittman offered a fresh take on the coming-of-age drama in It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats, for all its isolated moments of sensual splendor, ultimately feels more conventional in its examination of closeted gay desire. A consistent sense of danger underpinned the lyricism of It Felt Like Love as Lila’s attempts to puff herself up sexually and thus conform to a certain societal standard veered into breathtakingly fraught moral terrain. By comparison, Frankie’s arc in Beach Rats goes just about where you’d expect, as he eventually finds himself in a situation where he’s forced to choose between coming out to his friends and risking ridicule, or conforming to their macho behavioral standards, at potentially great cost to someone else’s life.
Dickinson, in his film debut, almost makes this familiar narrative feel fresh. Like Hittman’s filmmaking to some degree, the young actor manages to convey a lot about Frankie’s anguished inner life through purely physical means: the tense way he carries himself around his male friends, as if afraid he’ll betray hints of his inner homosexual desires, or the soft-spoken line readings which tremble with inarticulate internal tensions. There’s a sense of mystery about him that lends Beach Rats an aura of emotional impenetrability.
Perhaps Hittman relies too much on that aura to give her sophomore film a coherence it doesn’t quite earn. Its final image—a callback to an the aforementioned shot of fireworks in Coney Island—suggests a character coming full circle, but considering how unresolved Frankie’s future remains, the sensation it evokes feels superficial at best, visually satisfying but without any deeper resonance. It exposes Beach Rats as a series of compelling moments adding up to a less-than-illuminating whole.
Director: Eliza Hittman
Writer: Eliza Hittman
Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Neal Huff, Nicole Flyus, Frank Hakaj
Release Date: August 25, 2017
Kenji Fujishima contributes film criticism to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and Village Voice, in addition to Paste. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.