#DirectedByWomen Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats examines the dark bruises of masculinity with a tender touch

It is clear from early on that Frankie (Harris Dickinson) does not believe in happily-ever-after fairy-tales. “Fireworks are, like, the opposite of romantic” he grumbles. Frankie is no stranger to the dark, the night is his cover as he prowls the streets, beaches and car parks of Brooklyn.

Eliza Hittman presents a film that directly tackles the dark bruises of masculinity with empathy and understanding. Hittman brings a perspective of male adolescence that admits its own fragility and bares all in a naked honesty. Her film’s moody stylistics lend themselves to Beach Rats feeling as though it has a soul of its own.

Beach Rats centres on 19-year-old Frankie, who inhabits an unlabelled queerness as he wanders Brooklyn void of a label. In his own words: “I pretend I’m gay and smoke their weed.” Frankie’s explanation is what leads him to click through online forums to connect with other gay men. When speaking to one man on webcam, Frankie reveals what neighbourhood he lives in and the stranger remarks: “that’s like the other side of the galaxy.” In many ways, Frankie is a lifetime away. He is lightyears from his family, friends and girlfriend, hiding himself in a quietness that shelters him. Hittman’s writing is exceptional for these subtle truths that float for a moment, before being washed away.

Something seems to run deeper with Frankie than his friends, Hittman’s deliberate choice for this character to be reserved in his sense of self is powerful. He mumbles questions that reveal the naturally integrated homophobia that surrounds him. Exemplified by Frankie’s girlfriend, Simone (Madeline Weinstein) bluntly stating that “two girls can make out and it’s hot, when two guys make out it’s gay.” Frankie’s life is segmented, divisions in his own identity make it a full-time job to balance these versions of self. Even if he tries to merge these separate parts, blurring the line between them becomes impossible as the division is drawn in ink. The home life Frankie is also dealing with is only an added layer of frustration for him. A ‘coming out’ isn’t something Frankie seems to particularly strive for, Hittman reflects that Frankie is battling shame with intrigue as he scours chat rooms and webpages to connect with gay men.

Hittman wrote and directed this story of simmering sexuality. Her writing finds power through limited dialogue, a lot goes unsaid, often meaning is only inferred through knowing glances and the nod of a head. As few words are spoken, those that are voiced have to count. Seemingly, it is Hittman’s conscious vision that grounds Beach Rats’ exploration of identity in sensitive emotion. As a woman directing this story of male sexuality, Hittman remains respectful to Frankie, she treats his character with dignity and finds no need to be exploitative. The sexualisation of young women is an unsurprising visual in our media, but Beach Rats unabashedly presents the male body with an expressed sensuality. Extreme close-ups show muscles straining against skin, beautifully capturing the intent behind Frankie’s lingering stare.

There is a bluntness encapsulated in the film’s camera work, unafraid of explicit gay sex scenes, the camera manages to show an honest, raw intimacy. Additionally, Hittman’s decision to work with 16mm film adds a layer of grittiness to Frankie’s situation. The melancholic artistic style manages to float from dreamlike visuals before plunging back into a harder, harsher form of visual storytelling. An aesthetic that speaks directly to this story of self-discovery that is both complicated and unclear.

Hélène Louvart, a cinematographer credited on over one hundred films, is the amazing talent behind the beautifully composed imagery in Beach Rats. The French cinematographer is a woman who has clearly perfected her craft. Beach Rats features carefully considered composition, the film is visually stunning. Louvart manages to make young men vaping appear as a wondrously alluring visual moment. The night sky becomes an atmospheric backdrop to Frankie’s glinting gold chain and shining skin. These fine-tuned details really position the film from Frankie’s perspective. Frankie’s personal story is handled with empathy from Hittman’s directorial stance and brought to life by Dickinson’s brilliant performance.

This intimate story is understood with a real affinity for Frankie, Dickinson is subtle in how he commands the role. He superbly embodies this young man, balancing sternness with softness, his muscular shape is home to a constantly suppressed vulnerability. Both Harris Dickinson and Madeline Weinstein fit brilliantly into the roles, that otherwise could have been forgettable or over-the-top.

Beach Rats is a film about exploration. Both complex and complicated, Frankie’s identity manages to escape the usual categorisations of queer cinema. On a spectrum of representations, this story fails to fall into a specifically labelled classification. Hittman has created a film that shows an unusual, yet contemporary portrayal of sexuality and masculinity. The film came under some criticism upon release due to its content of gay men being written and directed by a woman. Yet the way in which Hittman has gone about telling this story is not derivative, instead she seems open about the repercussions and discussions to do with this story. The film raises questions throughout, like the legitimacy of Frankie’s ‘pretending to be gay’ explanation. But above all Beach Rats refuses to provide a patronising or overly cliché conclusion. Hittman handles the realistic negotiations of this young man’s identity, never striving for a definitive label or answer.

While Frankie may be yearning for something he does not quite have a hold of, Hittman has no qualms in letting the young man linger in this state. Leaving time for thought and consideration while still being upfront in the delivery of this narrative.

Frankie is a beach rat himself, constantly being lured back to the melodic waves of the ocean, he finds himself in a rhythm that he does not know how to break. No matter how many layers of skin Frankie may try to hide himself under, the bruises have still left their mark, a reminder of the consequences of his choices. Hittman has created a poignant film about the yearning frustrations of identity that is well worth a watch.

 

by Emily Maskell

Originally from the flat lands of Norfolk, Emily now studies Film at De Montfort University. She’s often found cuddling her dog and wearing oversized jumpers with a big mug of tea. When Em’s not in the cinema, she spends too much time re-watching Bo Burnham’s stand-up comedy and subjecting her friends to her Call Me By Your Name ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmMaskell

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