The Duh Moment
Movie Review – Beach Rats
Directed by Eliza Hittman
Starring Harris Dickinson, Kate Hodge, Madeline Weinstein, and Harrison Sheehan
Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats was one of last year’s “big three” acclaimed dramas about gay men. The other two, Call Me by Your Name and God’s Own Country, set new standards for quality, realism, and positivity in queer cinema. But Beach Rats, while brilliantly filmed and rich in detail, is problematic in the way it portrays homosexual men.
Hittman takes us on a visually mesmerizing journey toward the obvious. A teenage pothead named Frankie (Harris Dickinson) lives with his mother (Kate Hodge), his sister (Nicole Flyus) and his dying father, who’s in the final stages of cancer. Frankie spends most of his time wandering the boardwalk with his three wife-beater-wearing buddies, hitting on girls and committing petty theft to pay for their marijuana. On one of those nights, he meets an attractive young woman named Simone (Madeline Weinstein) and appears to take a liking to her. The two sneak into Frankie’s house where they attempt to have sex. But Frankie can’t perform because, as we know from the film’s opening scene, Frankie likes men. Older men. Frankie cruises for the perfect daddy online via a series of darkly lit cam chats that seem overly invested in being seedy. Already, Hittman is telling us that older men of legal age having sex with young men of legal age is skeevy and gross.
A director’s film to the core, much of Beach Rats is set to the bustling sights and sounds of Brooklyn’s Coney Island Boardwalk. Its early scenes dazzle with colorful and dizzying images, from the rows of neon-lit arcade games and vendor lights that sail by in the background, to the glare and roar of a nighttime bumper car ride, and the face of a beautiful girl framed by fireworks, all set to a dreamlike, synth-based score and some brilliant sound mixing. Hittman won the director’s award at Sundance for this, her second film. And she draws us effortlessly into Frankie’s buzzed-out world. She’s deft at revealing story visually instead of through unnecessary dialogue, but her script rarely delves below the surface.
We don’t learn much about Frankie other than the obvious facts. And his motivations are often unclear. We can only assume from what we’re shown that Frankie’s hunt for a validating father-figure is a reaction to his father’s impending death and not from their actual relationship, which we learn nothing about, and which seems more likely to be the root of his fetish. The only thing we really know is that Frankie is a self-hating homo in denial. As he continues his internet hookups, it becomes clear he enjoys sex with men. Yet he desperately fights his urges. He numbs his brain with drugs and tries to form a real relationship with Simone. But his feelings for her are forced. (In order to make love to her, he must first masturbate in the bathroom to get an erection). And his affectionate moments toward her are calculated to deflect suspicion about his true feelings. Before long, Frankie’s double life and his association with his fellow rats cause increased pressure from his mother and Simone and he soon spins out of control toward inevitable tragedy.
If there are other clues about what’s going on in Frankie’s head, we don’t always get them from Dickinson. There are stunning moments in this performance. There’s a subtle conflict in his expressions during his moments of gay intimacy – a look of lost detachment in his piercing eyes interspersed with half-hearted smiles and winces. And he certainly looks the part. Tall and athletic, with full, pouting lips, dreamy eyes, and an undeniable sexual energy, he’s every daddy’s perfect twink. But the effect of his mannerisms is dulled by repetition. And for much of the movie, his idea of conveying internal conflict seems remarkably similar to staring blankly forward like a psychopath for long periods of time. If that’s acting, my cat deserves an Oscar. There are good reasons for playing a part close to the shoulder. And there’s such a thing as form following content. But this low-key, or rather non-key, approach seems intended merely to mask a lack of substance.
Unlike Johnny Saxby’s slow development toward maturity in God’s Own Country, Frankie’s big revelation occurs suddenly at the end of the film. In a logic-defying turn of plot, the fearfully closeted Frankie makes a decisive stand against his feelings by informing his straight, homophobic buddies that he cruises gay sites to find men who will get him high. The four decide that Frankie will lure a young man (Harrison Sheehan) to the beach under the pretense of getting high and possibly having sex. There the rats will ambush him and steal his dope. Incredibly, the three buy into Frankie’s story without suspecting his true sexuality. (There is a suggestion that one of them may be on to Frankie, but this is a red herring that goes nowhere). The plan turns sour when two of the three violently attack their victim. Frankie reacts with fear and disgust as the consequences of his actions suddenly sink in. And that’s it. Frankie’s big revelation is that betraying a gay brother so your straight buddies can roll him for pot can turn out badly for the gay guy. That’s the big “duh” moment that finally gets Frankie’s attention and affords Dickinson the opportunity for a new facial expression. The whole incident leaves Frankie so shaken he breaks down in front of his mom and, in a pathetic attempt to distance himself from the crime and his sexuality, deletes his social site profile. The film ends with Frankie wandering dazed and confused on the boardwalk, surrounded by fireworks, as the film fades to black.
This ending left me perplexed and incredulous. What exactly is Hittman implying? In a ridiculous conversation with the victim, shortly before the crime, Frankie claims he’s not gay but has sex with older men to avoid being recognized by people his own age. (Mull on that one awhile). With the deletion of his profile, are we now to believe he’s “repented” of being gay? Was he never gay in the first place? Was he really, as he told his friends, merely in it for the weed? Is Frankie’s deletion of his profile just another lame attempt at denying his sexual identity or does it signal the end of a simple dalliance with a darker lifestyle? Every gay man who sees this film will know the real-life answers. Of course he’s gay and of course he’s in denial. His pre-crime conversation with the victim was just the usual bullshit logic that countless self-denying gay men use to dismiss their true feelings. But by muddying the waters, Hittman distances herself and the film from Frankie’s truth. Maybe the ambiguity is meant to divert attention from the fact that he hasn’t really learned anything. His denial has reached a new peak but he’s still the same spineless tool he was before. Thus we’re left with nothing more than the warnings of a simple morality play. But what exactly are we being warned about? The dangers of denying one’s inner truth? The dangers of succumbing to gay desire? The film’s persistently homophobic vibe makes the latter seem more likely.
Hittman has claimed that she’s interested in taboos and that’s apparent. Beach Rats wallows in the lurid details of internet hook-ups and the relentless meat market of gay social sites – the anonymous after-dark hookups in the bushes, the prevalence of drugs, and the soulless creeps who prey on vulnerable gay men. These are real and legitimate subjects for a film. But Hittman’s script has no real understanding of, and little sympathy for, the roots of this behavior – the desperate need for male validation that so many gay men have been denied. We’re only shown the sleaze because Frankie’s attraction to men is the film’s true antagonist.
Beach Rats is worth watching, if not to see the work of a promising director, then certainly for the excellent performances Hodge and Weinstein. They bring a warm feminine touch and much-needed emotional substance to an often-sterile chronicle. But they can’t override the movie’s ugly nature. Beach Rats is a return to the outdated and unenlightened trope of the tortured homosexual. The film’s virtues as a visual work of art and as a clever piece of story-telling are undeniable. But after the life-affirming joy I felt as a gay man watching Call Me by Your Name and God’s Own Country, I couldn’t help leaving this movie feeling like we’ve just taken a big step backward.