VOD film review: Beach Rats
Matthew Turner | On 24, Nov 2017
Director: Eliza Hittman
Cast: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Nicole Flyus
Writer-director Eliza Hittman follows her 2013 debut, It Felt Like Love, with this engaging, sharply observed study of sexual exploration and suppression, set in present-day Brooklyn. British actor Harris Dickinson (making his feature debut) plays Frankie, an aimless 19 year old, who lives in a tiny South Brooklyn apartment with his mother, Donna (Kate Hodge), younger sister, Carla (Nicole Flyus) and terminally ill, bed-ridden father, Joe (Neal Huff).
Frankie spends the summer days getting high with his beach rat buddies (Anton Selyaninov, Frank Hakaj and David Ivanov) on the Coney Island boardwalk, where he’s picked up by sexually aggressive local girl Simone (Madeline Weinstein, no relation) after a romantic meet-cute under the Friday night fireworks. However, although he tries to make a go of things with Simone, Frankie finds himself drawn to gay chat rooms, where he tentatively flirts with older men and occasionally arranges late-night assignations for sex.
Dickinson is terrific as Frankie, perfectly capturing his fluctuating state of sexual confusion, veering between fear and desire, acceptance and denial. To that end, it’s heart-breaking to watch his relationship with Simone – we sense that she could be good for him, yet he’s unable to respond to her physically, instead responding with a cruel taunt that drives her away.
Weinstein is equally good as Simone, who turns out to be more astute than she initially appears, and there’s strong support from Hodge as Frankie’s exasperated mother, who, having just lost her husband, fears that she’s also losing her son to drugs or his bad influence friends. Harrison Sheehan also makes a memorable impression as a sweetly vulnerable young man who becomes one of Frankie’s potential hook-ups.
Hittman’s direction is extremely accomplished throughout, conveying a wealth of emotional information through evasion or pointed silences, particularly in Frankie’s hook-up scenes. She’s adept at building tension through seemingly innocent conversation, such as when Frankie attempts to test the waters with his friends, as a prelude to showing them the Brooklyn Boys website. She orchestrates a number of extremely impressive sequences, including a heart-stoppingly tense final act, and a nightclub sequence on a boat where Frankie’s worlds come dangerously close to colliding.
The film is beautifully shot, courtesy of French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who creates an effectively hazy atmosphere, reflecting both the sweltering Brooklyn summer and the feverish intensity of Frankie’s sexual encounters. She also shoots the sex scenes in intriguing ways, imbuing them with a touching sensitivity. This is a heartfelt, quietly emotional film that has compelling things to say about sexual repression and the search for identity, while marking out both Hittman and Dickinson as serious talents to watch.