Struggling to acknowledge his sexuality but fearing what his swaggering buddies will think, a gay Brooklyn teenager makes a reckless decision which has devastating consequences in “Beach Rats,” Eliza Hittman’s exquisitely moody coming-of-age drama.
In 2014’s “It Felt Like Love,” Hittman followed a teenage working-class Brooklyn girl with a sad home life as she explored her emerging sexuality in dangerous ways involving carelessly spun lies. With “Beach Rats,” Hittman returns to that terrain, with a gay male protagonist and even more assurance.
Aimless and jobless, 19-year-old Frankie (Harris Dickinson) lives, disconnectedly, with his terminally ill father (Neal Huff), worried mother (Kate Hodge) and fast-maturing kid sister (Nicole Flyus). Every day, Frankie hangs out on the beach and boardwalk, engaging in dude dynamics and petty crime with shirtless delinquents (David Ivanov, Anton Selyaninov, Frank Hakaj).
At night, in private, Frankie flirts online with older men, some of whom he hooks up with on cruising beaches. Both turned on and horrified by his feelings, Frankie says things like “I don’t really consider myself gay” or “I have a girlfriend.”
The latter remark refers to Simone (Madeline Weinstein), a young woman enticed by Frankie’s charisma but disappointed with his lack of sexual interest and overall investment in their relationship.
Wanting to tell his three buddies about his second life but terrified they’ll react horribly, Frankie comes up with a disastrous strategy rooted in self-denial.
Hittman generates little dramatic buildup among Frankie’s beach-rat bros and doesn’t develop their characters beyond the surface. Consequently, the disturbing events of the final act lack an organic feel.
But Frankie and his predicament are compelling subjects, and Hittman, who has directed just two features, is a master of moody, visual, humane storytelling.
With its suppressed desire, male torsos, directionless teens, gay protagonist and beach setting, the film suggests a mix of “Beau Travail,” “Moonlight” and Larry Clark’s wayward-kid shockers. Yet Hittman supplies impressive emotional and atmospheric realities all her own.
She captures the restlessness, insecurity, vacillating feelings and individuality-vs.-conformity dilemmas of young people and creates, with her dilapidated Coney Island setting, a poetically gritty stuck-in-time vibe. Occasionally, it’s charming, as when Simone, giving Frankie her phone number, writes it on his arm.
Dickinson, who is British, triumphs as a Brooklyn-accented beach bum and registers everything from fear to confusion to curiosity to horror on Frankie’s face. His Frankie is the sort of son who’d steal painkillers from his dying father just to get high with his friends. At the same time, he has a sensitive, deserving quality.
Consider Hittman and Dickinson two of the year’s most exciting emerging film talents.
Starring Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Nicole Flyus
Written and directed by Eliza Hittman
Running time 1 hour, 35 minutes