I don’t really know what I like, says 19-year-old Frankie over and over again. His recurring indecision is one of the central themes in writer/director, Eliza Hittman’s lyrical and powerful second drama.
Making his feature debut, UK actor, Harris Dickinson is convincing as working class, Brooklyn adolescent Frankie who lives at home with his family, where his father is dying of cancer. He spends his summer days drifting aimlessly with his fellow delinquent beach rats, getting high and picking up girls. But by night, in his parents’ basement, he flirts with older men online and eventually starts to meet up with them at a local cruising beach, whilst tentatively beginning a relationship with local girl, Simone (Madeline Weinstein, also making her film debut).
Frankie is a mix: capable of being tough as well as vulnerable. Dickinson’s striking central performance explores Frankie’s confused and struggling sexuality with nuance. Along with his straight friends, he parades his manliness with bravado, playing baseball and struts down the boardwalk. Although the boys outwardly appear comfortable with themselves and their bodies, it just reinforces Frankie’s internal denial and discomfort. He blames drugs for his lack of passion with Simone, revealing a streak of nastiness when she asks if he finds her pretty. His unease at heterosexual intimacy contrasts with his growing confidence in his gay male encounters. But this is not a coming out narrative or a story that shows a protagonist coming to terms with his sexuality. Instead, Beach Rats explores Frankie’s slow realisation of who he is. He knows but at the same time he doesn’t.
The film is shot with 16mm, which gives a grainy, sepia, timeless feel to it. Flickering neon contrasts with deep, dark shadows whether scenes are set in the daytime or at night. But there is also an underlying tension throughout the film, a sense that anything could explode at any point.
Violence, although not graphic, does appear in the last act but the event is an unconvincing, unsatisfying clichéd conclusion to an otherwise beautifully paced and haunting film.
Beach Rats is released on 24 November