Beach Rats was one of my most anticipated films of 2017, and it is a damn shame I waited till midway into 2018 to watch it. Call Me by Your Name might have been the premiere gay film of 2017, but if you haven’t watched Beach Rats then you haven’t seen all that 2017 had to offer.
Before I begin, I have to say Beach Rats is a beautifully shot film that almost feels as if it was made in a European setting. Director Eliza Hittman, a Brooklyn native, has a knack for capturing her hometown during the summer, and her darker lit scenes ooze pure atmosphere and intimacy. The film was even featured in The Playlist’s best cinematography of 2017 list.
The film focuses on a teenager named Frankie(Harris Dickinson) and his uncertainty towards his sexuality and overall identity. The film opens up with Frankie searching through an all-male hookup video chat room until he finds someone to talk to. All the men in the photos seem to be shirtless or outright naked, and we see that Frankie is fascinated by this. The older man asks him if he wants to hang out tonight, which Frankie turns down. Before the man exits the chat Frankie says, “Wait… let me see your dick.” This one scene sets the tone of the film because we know Frankie is tempted by this gentleman, this desire, this urge, this outright fascination with the male body.
Later that night Frankie goes out with his group of guy friends to the Coney Island boardwalk, and while watching the fireworks he is hit on by Simone(Madeline Weinstein). What we see is something a little bit different from typical male/female encounters. It is a rare sight when the girl makes all the sexual advances and the guy is hesitant toward them. He really doesn’t want to be left alone with her, nor does he have her viewpoints on romance. All of what I just described is in the first 10 minutes of Beach Rat, and from there the film blossoms.
Beach Rats is a dark erotic portrayal of a coming out story, and to an extent a coming of age story because it isn’t romanticized, nor is their beauty in what Frankie experiences. As the film progresses, his courage grows in the chat rooms, and he starts to meet with these guys. His meetings with these men are always in dark places as if what they are doing is taboo. There is nothing pretty about how he interacts with these people. One thing I will never forget about this film is one of the conversations Frankie has with Simone. He asks Simone what she thinks about girls on girls, to which she responds, “When two girls make out it is hot but when two guys make out it is gay.” That one single line is so devastating and haunting because you know it is an actual perception Americans have. Often times guys and even girls encourage sexual interactions between girls but flinch when guys do the same. That is why I like Beach Rats, because it doesn’t flinch when capturing Frankie’s sexual explorations. The film shows full-on male nudity from the beginning and doesn’t shy away from guy on guy sex scenes.
I can’t blame Frankie for how he feels; he doesn’t have someone to talk to. His friends are all typical meatheads, his younger sister is too busy finding her own identity, and his mother is trying to balance adulthood and her husband being on his deathbed. Frankie is gay but clearly doesn’t know anything about how to be gay or what is normal. All the gay activities are done in the dark. You honestly feel bad for him, because he is alienated from gays and straight people. He tries hard to fit in, but his voice and mannerisms give him away. The look in his eyes is tragic as he stares at straight couples and longs for what they have. Maybe that is what forces him to like Simone, because he associates happiness with straight people and ugliness with gay love.
Earlier in the film, when Frankie first meets Simone, she mentions how romantic the fireworks are, which prompts Frankie to say, “There is nothing special about the them because it is the same show every Friday.” He says they are the opposite of romantic, lending more power to the ending of the film, which ends with the same fireworks. The fireworks are a symbol of celebration, but it is clear there is nothing to celebrate, and that is what makes Beach Rats a dark portrayal of male masculinity and sexuality.