There are two female directors making must-see films about adolescence right now. One of them is Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Girlhood, Tomboy) and the other is Eliza Hittman. Beach Rats is Hittman’s second feature and, like her 2013 debut (It Felt Like Love), the film focuses on one teenager’s sexual and spiritual awakening in working-class Brooklyn. The two films are undoubtedly in dialogue, using the same poetic techniques to create a fully realized portrait of a young person in transition, but Beach Rats is perhaps the superior film. Visualizing the moods, deeply suppressed tensions and violent pressures inside her male protagonist, Hittman has created a powerful, sensual film about identity, loss and the complicated space that often lies between desire and expectation.
Newcomer and likely future Calvin Klein model Harris Dickinson stars as Frankie, a muscular, shirtless, wayward youth who wanders Coney Island with a sunburned crew of aspiring tough guys. They’re out on the beach day after day, looking for weed, girls and cheap amusements. But Hittman is smart enough to show how these diversions are really constrictions. They result in vicious hangovers and empty pockets while reminding that socializing as a teenager is always a performance. Hittman reveals this through tight shots of Dickinson’s wonderfully expressive face, wondering how to be, how to look, who to look at and when.
Frankie also has a secret that only the internet can indulge. We could say that he’s “gay,” but that’s too simple. It’s more like he’s suffering from a hundred different expectations and the only way he finds an outlet is by going on a webcam to look at naked men. He sits in front of his computer screen in the basement of his mother’s house with a hat over his eyes, ashamed to see and ashamed to be seen. He mumbles to the handsome strangers as if speaking into some kind of abyss. They beckon him to undress, to reveal himself, to show the real self that lies beneath his baggy shorts.
In the light of day, Frankie returns to the boozing, beaching and girls — but at night, he’s back at the screen, staring in silent awe at the men’s anonymous bodies. Frankie discovers something true about himself there and he’s quiet about it, at times in denial, but the attraction is there in his eyes and Dickinson’s sensitive, searching performance reveals it all.
Fireworks play a fantastic role in the film. They’re exploding over Frankie’s head when he first meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein), the pretty, red-lipped girl he’s supposed to like. On the surface, their conversation is generic flirtation: he says they’re lame and routine, and she teases him for it. Only later will it become clear why Frankie was resisting the common connotation. As a closeted young man, he’s neither willing nor able to accept the definitions the world has handed to him. It’s not just teenaged rebellion either. It’s a linguistic resistance that’s key to understanding his very self.
Sickness is a notable theme as well, both the kind we can see and those we can’t. When Frankie covers Simone’s eyes as they walk through his living room for the first time, it’s not because the place is a “mess.” It’s because his father is dying of cancer on a temporary sick bed. The illness remains in the background of the film but sheds light on Frankie’s behavior. He lies to Simone, steals his mother’s jewelry and sneaks painkillers out of his dad’s medicine cabinet, but Hittman’s empathetic eye underlines the humanity of it; cruelty as a symptom of hurt.
By acting straight and claiming to need no one’s sympathy, Frankie’s pain can only grow. His only solace becomes his double life where he meets with men in wooded areas or motel rooms to claim the only intimacy he’s allowed. The film’s love scenes are strikingly beautiful, even balletic, and Hittman is a brave and gifted filmmaker for sharing such fiercely private moments between men, the likes of which we haven’t quite seen before.
As Frankie’s grows more comfortable with experimentation, his need to cover it up does too. He’s afraid of being found out and even more afraid of realizing he’s not the person he thought he was, the person he spends most of his time pretending to be. The film takes a disturbing turn when Frankie experiences what could be considered a sexual assault. He responds by recreating more violence — and with this, Hittman makes an important connection between sex and violence: how one can inform the other and how both are means of responding to feelings of pain or helplessness.
In addition to bearing resemblance to the impressionistic and deeply empathetic style of Celine Sciamma, Hittman’s work could also be compared to Barry Jenkins’ work in Moonlight. All three directors favor visual details, mood and music over explanatory dialogue or satisfying conclusions. Their highly visual films make brilliant use color, music and performances, all three becoming the foremost means of expression and perhaps reflecting something larger about what it actually feels like to be a young person, trapped in a situation they don’t understand.
In an interview with Film Comment, Hittman said Beach Rats was “not a coming-of-age story or a coming-out story. I think about it as coming to consciousness about who you are…” By transcending genre, emphasizing mood over dialogue and affording her lead actor the space to truly commit to his role, Hittman has made a subtly brilliant portrait of self-discovery, a process of becoming with no beginning, middle or end.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a fiction writer and film critic. She lives in Brooklyn.