Movie Review - Beach Rats

There was a special screening of this film at the Landmark's Sunshine Cinema in Manhattan. The special screening was hosted by Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winner this year for the film Moonlight. Jenkins makes sense as a host, given this film has some striking comparisons to Moonlight. For starters, the protagonists in both films are young males who don't identify as gay but whom clearly have same-sex attraction. This film, written and directed by Eliza Hittman, her second feature, is more explicit with its sexuality, which compared to Moonlight isn't difficult to do. Both characters are involved with drugs. Both have a sick parent, eventually being limited to a single mother. Both films are more character-study, more sensual and evocative than narrative in their natures. Both deal with homophobia, external and internal. Yet, both fail to properly convince of said homophobia and this film might be the worst offender.

Harris Dickinson stars as Frankie, a guy who looks like he could be in his 20's and in college somewhere, but we're to believe he's a teenager, 16 or 17, maybe 18. Yet, what's apparent from the beginning is that he doesn't have the body of a teenager. Ashton Sanders who played the teenage protagonist in Moonlight was an actual teenager while making that film and looks it. Dickinson looks like a guy post or even in the tail-end of college who has spent those years living in the gym, training for some sport.

Hittman in her debut feature, previous to this, had an obsession with focusing her camera and providing close-ups of teenage bodies. Usually, it was the perspective of her protagonist's leering and prurient gaze. It's the same gaze here, but, as the opening moments reveal, it's indicative of the protagonist's constant preening. We see his mirror selfies, which mostly provide a stereotypical image of the idealized gay male icon. Frankie has a white, lean, smooth, hairless, muscular, almost bodybuilder torso who is faceless, thanks to a tipped-down baseball cap and a lens flare from his iPhone camera. He clearly knows what's attractive to the gay men he seduces often without much effort, which is basically just a hot body and not much else, a stereotype repeated too often.

The protagonist in Moonlight wasn't so body-obsessed as a teenager, probably because he had external pressures with which to struggle. The protagonist here, Frankie, has no external pressures with which he's struggling. Frankie, for example, even without his six-pack abs and perfect pecs, and even with his slightly freckled face, still is fairly stunning, as it's constantly commented how pretty he is, how gorgeous his eyes and how soft his lips are. That kind of flattery and adoration isn't heaped upon Chiron, the name of the teenager in Moonlight.

Frankie does dismiss that kind of flattery, but it is his to dismiss. Chiron isn't flattered. He's bullied. He's chased. He's beaten. Even though he doesn't do anything that we see that could be considered gay, he's still the subject of homophobic slurs and attacks. Frankie, on the other hand, has everyone fall to his feet or literally lay down for him. The world is his oyster, so the question becomes why does he hide his same-sex attraction?

We know why Chiron hides it. He's being bullied for being gay, despite never identifying as gay, or even expressing or exploring it. That can't be said here for Frankie. He's not being bullied. He's not being attacked or even challenged at all. Of his group of friends, of which there are three other guys, Frankie appears to be the alpha dog, and over and over again, Frankie insists they're not his friends. Obviously, he does so jokingly, but it does feel like he could easily do without them.

This is where Hittman's movie loses its way. She never defines where the homophobia originates in such it causes Frankie to behave the way he does. Yes, his friends do come across as homophobic, but so what? Hittman's script never establishes them as vital to Frankie or that he couldn't simply find new friends or that those friends, if confronted with Frankie's same-sex attraction, couldn't eventually accept it. They do live in New York, one of the most liberal cities and one of the most gay-friendly cities outside San Francisco. It's not to say bigots and homophobes don't exist in New York. Reportedly, hate crimes have increased this year in the Big Apple.

Yet, gay visibility is the highest it's ever been. This year, for the first time, New York's LGBTQ Pride Parade was televised on the local ABC station. GLAAD issues a report regarding media representation of gay people. Its latest report has the amount of LGBTQ representation at the highest its ever been on both broadcast, cable and online TV. A recent study by PRRI has pointed out, according to some writers, that millennials are the "gayest generation." This is in how they identify and certainly as to their acceptance of LGBTQ people. Frankie and his friends are millennials, so what's the deal?

Hittman certainly doesn't make the case for Frankie's hiding his sexuality by way of his home life. He has a recently widowed mom, played by Kate Hodge, who seems cool yet concerned for her son, but at no point does she express any homophobia or any religious statements that might suggest homophobia. We briefly see Frankie's father before his death. The funeral is even held in a big church where most likely his father attended. It could be assumed that any such homophobia came from his father, but unfortunately we're never shown that.

For some reason, Hittman would rather this artificial tension, instead of having the character deal with what is or what could be a genuine and legitimate, internal conflict. Frankie never identifies as gay. As he states, he doesn't know what he wants or who he really is. All he knows is that he has this same-sex attraction. It's obvious to the audience how Frankie struggles to perform with a girl but he can easily jump into bed with a guy, but for him it could have been an actual question, which is what the "Q" in LGBTQ is for. It stands for "Questioning" or "Queer." It's for people who don't know or aren't sure what to identify as, in terms of sexual orientation or gender identity or both.

This movie could have honestly been a movie for those in the LGBTQ community who are the Q, but, like Moonlight, the movie is hijacked briefly by a drug trafficking aspect. Frankie doesn't become a drug dealer like Chiron, but to feed his and his friends' habits, Frankie becomes a thief and a bit of a thug. It's odd because it's almost as if scoring drugs is more important than keeping the secret about his sexuality. Hittman practically ditches her premise to show how working-class, white kids who choose not to work but lay around for the summer can easily turn to stealing and beating up people for drugs, but I can't tell what Hittman's takeaway from it is supposed to be.

Arguably, Frankie's lie and his fear to be honest about his feelings result in a person getting hurt, but the last act becomes more about his thuggish friends and their laziness-led-to-criminal behavior. Neither Frankie nor his so-called friends bother to get jobs for the summer like some of the other teens in Brooklyn. Maybe, Hittman's takeaway is these teenage boys in Brooklyn are lazy and Frankie is just a troubled, lonely and slightly drug-addicted person for which this movie gives us an excuse to fawn over him.

Rated R for strong sexual content, full-frontal nudity, drug use and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.

In Select Theaters, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago...
Check out its web site for cities and showtimes.


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