Beach Rats (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
With so many films for the LGBTQ community being so broad, often through the scope of silly-minded comedy, it is most refreshing when a work comes around that dares to be specific and treats its subject with utmost respect and sincerity. Here is a film that captures the crippling loneliness of a closeted young gay person—such a state of mind so overwhelming that every day people who happen to fall outside the heteronormative sphere decide to end their lives instead of having to endure another second of it.
Although “Beach Rats” does not involve suicide, writer-director Eliza Hittman is interested in capturing intense long-term emotions and states of mind that may contribute to such an action. The protagonist is a most desperate character—desperate to be seen for who he truly is by others, desperate to find a way to accept his sexuality, desperate to just be himself. And parallel to his desperation is a cycle of self-destructive behavior, every step leading to the opposite direction of what he hopes to achieve. But there is no judgement. The camera merely asks that we observe.
Harris Dickinson plays Frankie with an armor so thick at times that less observant viewers will likely miss the performer’s level of control. A one-dimensional approach to a stoic character might have proven toxic, but Dickinson is wise to allow just enough flittering moments of lightness, optimism, and romanticism to pierce the armor. These small but critical glimpses give the viewers a chance to imagine an alternate reality: How Frankie might have ended up a different person entirely had he the courage to come out and had he been provided unconditional support to help him get through any challenge that life bestows.
The picture’s photography is so beautiful. It is not shiny or glamorous—in fact, it appears to look grainy at times—but there is a timeless look and feel about it that is exactly right for the type of story being told. With the exception of images like fireworks and amusement park rides on Coney Island, the colors are, for the most part, dull, suffocating, giving the impression that existing rather than living is the norm.
Numerous shots of extreme close-ups, whether it be a corner of someone’s face or a body part, communicate the fractured or incompleteness of Frankie’s every day existence. We follow him doing the same thing when things go bad and not doing a thing that might steer his life in another direction. However, the screenplay ensures that we empathize with the main character even though some of his actions can be questionable. Like any other person, Frankie is capable of unnecessary cruelty. Sometimes cruelty comes in the form of doing nothing when doing something is morality right.
It is worth noting that “Beach Rats” is never meant to be titillating—a standout because many LGBTQ pictures feel the need to entertain such an avenue even though it does not have anything to do with their thesis. Here, observe how nearly every sexual encounter is something that just has to be done rather than to be enjoyed. It usually involves Frankie having to prove to others he is one way rather than another, to prove that he is something else other than what he knows to be true. It is a sad story and I admired Hittman’s focus when it comes to delivering what the film wishes to convey.