“I don’t really know what I like.”
Frankie (Harris Dickinson), the Brooklyn teenager at the heart of Beach Rats, says this at least twice in the movie, and it’s something of an understatement. Frankie’s confusion over his own sexuality—over sexuality in general—gnaws away at his very sense of self. While trying to keep up with his tough-guy friends and messing around with a potential girlfriend, Frankie also visits gay chat rooms, where he arranges to meet with anonymous men—to increasingly dangerous results. Honest, incisive, and deeply sympathetic, Beach Rats is an intimate portrait of the cost that is paid when a teenager feels societal pressure to remain closeted.
Writer-director Eliza Hittman, in her second feature film, captures Frankie’s dilemma by marrying her camera to his furtive glances. It’s not only how, at the beach, Frankie’s gaze falls not on a girl being rubbed with suntan lotion by her boyfriend, but on the boyfriend’s arms. It’s also how the camera lingers on the reflection in a car window of shirtless boys playing in the park, or even on a rip in the nylon stockings worn by his mother. For Frankie, every display of the human body, no matter how minor, is fraught.
There’s a general, intentional murkiness to the imagery in Beach Rats that echoes Frankie’s state of mind. From the darkness of the woods where Frankie meets men to the haze of the smoke shop where he hangs out with his friends, a cloud hangs over Frankie’s decisions, and their results. Dizzying drugs are prevalent—recreation for those friends but clearly desperate numbing agents for him.
Yet this isn’t exactly a cautionary tale. More than anything else, Beach Rats is sympathetic. It’s patient enough to offer a portrait of Frankie’s difficult home life, where his mother (Kate Hodge) mourns the recent loss of her husband to cancer by repeatedly listening to his voice on their outgoing voicemail message. Frankie’s girlfriend Simone (Madeline Weinstein), meanwhile, gets her own distinct presence in the story; the aggressor in the relationship, she knows exactly what she wants.
And then there is Dickinson’s mesmerizing lead performance. As a young man expected to meet a very narrowly prescribed definition of masculinity, yet one who finds the concept of sexuality in general overwhelming, Dickinson manages to be both withdrawn and arresting. Frankie is an object of desire—both for Simone and the men he meets online—and while Dickinson projects his awareness of that, he also captures, in quick blinks and quiet sighs, how this also makes Frankie’s confusion feel more immediate and pressing. If Frankie doesn’t know what he likes, it’s because everyone around him is so eager to tell him exactly who they think he is.