Beach Rats ★★★★★

"I've been really fucked up lately."

Frankie says so little, but I know him so well. Eliza Hittman uses every tool at her disposal to put the viewer right in her protagonist's point of view. It's in the way she shoots bodies, lingering glances up and down arms and chests. It's in the emphasis on touch, showing hands in tight close-ups as they pass blunts and run through hair. It's in the grain of the 16mm film and the single-source lighting, creating a disorienting effect that makes us feel lost at sea. The camera weaves through the crowds and lands straight on Frankie, a teenage boy with a kind heart and a mind full of doubt. He's plagued by guilt and shame and he doesn't know what to do with it, or how to let it all out without anybody finding out what makes him cry.

Being gay does not mean you understand what it is to be gay. Frankie is attracted to men -- he doesn't doubt that. The confusion lays in his understanding of gay identity and how sexuality manifests. He sees heterosexuality everywhere, straight couples holding hands on the train, his sister kissing a boy in the park, his mother curling up next to his father, etc. The boys can talk about the girls in the most disgusting and objectifying ways, but when Frankie sees them together, it's nothing short of tender and loving. This is natural. Frankie's exposure to gay sexuality is dramatically different. It's only online or tucked away in the bushes at night, always a filthy secret. These men doing strip teases and dancing nude on webcams are ridiculous, and Frankie is completely alienated by it. This is what he likes? This is what being gay is? He doesn't know any gay men in his own life, so this minimal subset of the community he sees online becomes his entire understanding. Frankie doesn't fit the stereotype, and while that protects him from harassment from straight people, he feels such an intense disconnect from gay identity, pushing him into a point of crisis. He just doesn't belong.

Beach Rats begins and ends at clear narrative marks, with occasional plot developments occurring throughout, but this is nothing if not a character study, albeit a more radical form of one. It has echoes of the French New Wave, lost teenagers struggling to find themselves in the valleys of youth. Hittman herself refers to the film as not coming of age but coming to consciousness. This is not a movie about coming out -- that simply isn't an option for Frankie. He tests the waters with his friends, his girlfriend, and his family, and there is support on no side. This is a story of emotional change and realization, a boy realizing that he isn't going to be the man he wants to be.

This is perhaps the greatest depiction I've seen of compulsory heterosexuality and its damaging effects. The social pressure placed on Frankie to be in a heterosexual relationship is undeniable and colossal, and most people don't even realize how they contribute to it. Too many straight people do not conceptualize homophobia as anything other than calling someone a slur. People think that using gender neutral language is unnecessary and assumptions are harmless, but these assumptions turn into expectations, and failing to meet them can be terrifying. Being out is not an option for Frankie. It's made explicitly clear that no one will support him in that event. He needs to be just like his father, just like the other boys, just what a good boy should be. It's here that the genius of Harris Dickinson really shines through, his growing discomfort in his own skin being more and more apparent as the film goes on.

Dickinson's performance is in line with the rest of the film, in that the subtlety is what makes it so sublime. It's so clear that there's something eating away at Frankie, even before we realize exactly what it is. All his friends do drugs, but he's the one who does it to escape. He feels so trapped in his own brain that getting fucked up is the only temporary escape, but even that fades away. My heart broke for him whenever he was sexual with his girlfriend, clearly uncomfortable and unwilling but knowing it was what he should be doing. He didn't treat her right, and nothing excuses that, but I can't pretend for a second that I don't understand why. She's beautiful and he knows it, but he just doesn't want her. The deeper he gets in his false identity, the more his friends validate him and the more disconnected from life he becomes. He does more drugs and sacrifices even more of his morals, because he's barely even a person at this point. He has no identity, so what does it matter if people get hurt?

Hittman's approach to filmmaking is absolutely brilliant, and I can't stop gushing about how well she's able to execute her beautiful visions. The dialogue is sparse and so much goes unspoken, but you can feel every ounce of truth that radiates from the screen. Every shot is gorgeous while maintaining such a naturalistic quality, and the way they're cut together reads like a symphony. The soundscape really aids in this, a beautiful score that comes in at just the right moments mixed in with the sounds of crashing waves and laughings crowds still echoing in my mind. It all feels so real, so completely organic, yet completely focused. Beach Rats is comprehensive yet never aimless. I can't recall the last time I saw a film that focused so intensely on one character, painting such a detailed, intimate portrait of them and the community they come from. Though I could directly relate to many of Frankie's experiences, even without that connection, the specificity of the film still lands. Just minutes in, we already have a thorough understanding of the culture of this city and what the social expectations are. This is the kind of place where everyone goes to the pier to see the fireworks every week of the summer, even though they never change. But Frankie does change, and in two separate moments, he looks at the same sight and sees something very, very different.

Beach Rats was my most anticipated of the year, and at this point, I'd say it's the best. I don't feel comfortable explaining the extent to which I could connect with so much of what was depicted here, but I assure you that so many details were pulled right from reality, down to the fear in meeting up with a new hookup and the awkwardness of first sex. I applaud Hittman and her actors for these realistic depictions of gay sex, the camera shying away from nothing without ever becoming exploitative. The amount of care with which this film was made is astounding. I loved nearly every moment individually, but as a whole, it's a hypnotic, beautiful, deeply emotional experience. While I'm sure the graphic nature of the content will be off-putting for some, I do believe this is an important film for straight viewers to see, to really get a glimpse at what it is to be closeted in a heteronormative world. This film has so much to offer, and it does so wonderfully.

It was such a pleasure to see this with one of my best friends, who is one of the only straight men I know to be so fully accepting of gay narratives and discussions on different identities and experiences. Seeing this with him and getting to see how much it affected him really made an amazing night even better. It makes me feel good to know that there are people who care about stories that are so personal to my heart. Thank you, Jacob.

Rating: 96/100

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