THE STORYAn aimless teenager on the outer edges of Brooklyn is having a miserable summer. With his father on his deathbed and his mother wanting him to find a girlfriend, Frankie escapes the bleakness of his life by causing trouble with his delinquent friends and flirting with older men online. When his chatting and webcamming intensifies, he finally starts hooking up with guys at a nearby cruising beach while simultaneously entering into a cautious relationship with a young woman.
THE CAST – Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein & Kate Hodge
THE TEAM – Eliza Hittman (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 95 Minutes
By Matthew G.
Youth is a chaotic time for most people. When you grow up in a neighborhood that glorifies physical attractiveness and traditional masculinity, adherence to expectations can be a crushing thing when you secretly don’t entirely fit those expectations. This dilemma forms the central core of “Beach Rats,” a pretty good character study of male queer identity and sexuality.
Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a titular “beach rat” from Brooklyn. He likes to work out, hangs out on the beach and plays handball with his friends, and regularly visits a vaping bar. However, he also has a strong penchant for partying, partaking in recreational drugs like marijuana and ecstasy, and, unbeknownst to anyone else, going on the internet looking for older gay men to chat with and, eventually, to meet for sex. The struggle to keep up appearances while still being true to his identity creates a mountain of turmoil for the young man.
The success or failure of “Beach Rats” really hangs on just a couple of things. The first thing that makes the film effective is the lead performance by relative newcomer Harris Dickinson. Dickinson has acted in shorts and television, but he’s making his theatrical film debut here. He imbues an enigmatic charisma to the character of Frankie The performance makes you sympathize with Frankie’s desire to be himself, but also tears down that sympathy due to some of the questionable choices he makes.
The other thing that most strongly makes “Beach Rats” work is the screenplay and direction from sophomore filmmaker Eliza Hittman. Her screenplay strongly captures the difficulties that a young guy might face, especially when it comes to facing the fact that he is sexually queer. The pain and hesitation Frankie feels when trying to come to terms with his attraction to men is evident in Frankie’s dialogue, but also in some of his facial expressions. It should also be noted that the beautiful cinematography adds to the swirling cauldron of emotions.
Unfortunately, what holds “Beach Rats” back from being a truly extraordinary film also derives from its screenplay. The overall narrative arc doesn’t really end in a place that’s terribly fulfilling. I can’t say that there isn’t any growth or change. But, given the magnitude of some of the events that take place during the film, I was left wanting more (but not in a positive way). There are also numerous supporting characters including Frankie’s mom and sister, his three friends, a young woman named Simone who he sporadically dates, and a charmingly mysterious guy that Frankie meets for a hookup. All of these characters are either underdeveloped or aren’t developed at all. There was so much potential for a lot of these people to have more too them. Or, perhaps it would have been better to cut down on the number of characters so more attention could have been given to certain important ones. Regardless, it’s a disappointment.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention just how similar “Beach Rats” is to another film about a young urban youth struggling to come to terms with his queer identity – the Best Picture winning “Moonlight.” The stories of the two films are very similar, except that the Oscar winner chose to narrow its focus and just a few significant moments in its protagonist’s life, rather than taking a more strictly traditional narrative approach. There are also fewer characters in “Moonlight,” allowing it to flesh them out more adequately. It may not be fair to compare the pair, especially because I would like to think they would make a nice double feature. But, while watching “Beach Rats,” my mind kept going back to “Moonlight.”
In the end, “Beach Rats” is a decent little coming of age film about a young guy trying to figure out himself and his sexuality. Its success is anchored by a strong performance from Harris Dickinson and a pretty good screenplay from Eliza Hittman. Unfortunately, it’s let down by woefully underwritten supporting characters and an ultimately aimless narrative. Sadly, it also draws so many comparisons to the superior “Moonlight” that I was distracted a bit. It’s still a film worth recommending, especially if you’re looking for a new and overall positive addition to the realm of queer cinema.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Harris Dickinson admirably carries the film in his theatrical feature film debut. Writer/director Eliza Hittman strongly captures the turmoil of youth and discovering one’s identity in only her second feature film. Lovely cinematography.
THE BAD – Most of the supporting characters aren’t developed much. The plot doesn’t feel like it has much of a resolution by the end. The story invites many comparisons to the superior “Moonlight.”
THE FINAL SCORE – 7/10