“I don’t really know what I like,” blankly states the protagonist of Beach Rats more than once during the course of the film. Much like her previous effort, It Felt Like Love, Eliza Hittman’s second feature is about the road to discovery, rather than the discovery itself. Beach Rats finds a young teen trying to map out his place in the turmoil of sexual politics, and coming to the understanding that this realization may never come.
As if it weren’t enough to deal with his dying father (Neal Huff), his overbearing mother (Kate Hodge), and the gang of hooligans he calls friends, Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is having an identity crisis as he attempts to compromise his conflicting views on his own sexuality. When he isn’t out on the town with his free-spirited girlfriend (Madeline Weinstein), he is hooking up with the strange men he meets in internet chat rooms.
The mastery of Beach Rats is found in its framing of its protagonist’s double life. Frankie is caught in a society ruled by toxic masculinity, and it forces him to hide who he truly is and compartmentalize his gayness. He hates himself for his desires, which leads to him peeking through his fingers at nude male figures and being unable to look his one-night stands directly in the eye. This environment is detrimental for his development, particularly because he is at an age where the struggle for understanding your own identity is imperative.
Eliza Hittman is nothing if not an observant filmmaker. She meticulously spies on her performers, focusing on close-ups of eyes and lips and fingers. In this way, she is much more confident than the average relatively green director, relying on her audience to pick up on what’s going on based on body language even more than the pointed dialogue they are presented with. Beach Rats is not a movie that feels the need to explain itself. Rather, it is a remarkable window into the life of an aimless teen who is trying to make sense of an irrational world.
Hittman also crafts a diorama out of unlikely heroes. She dives into a subculture that her audience wouldn’t typically empathize with, one whose motivation revolves around committing petty crimes, abusing prescription drugs, and cruising for meaningless sex on the boardwalk. Nevertheless, the director never demonizes her characters for their hedonistic actions. Instead, she humanizes them, creating a bridge for viewers who might otherwise have a difficult time becoming invested in their struggles.
A film this intimate and documentary-like absolutely crumbles to the ground without precision and grace from its performers, and luckily Beach Rats boasts painfully poignant finesse from its leads. Harris Dickinson (a Brit, although you would never know it from his performance here) excels in the film’s quiet moments, bringing a crucial subtlety to the role. Though she has limited screen time, Madeline Weinstein can seemingly convey any imaginable emotion with her eyes. Both performers have long and fruitful careers ahead of them.
Filmmakers often let their motivations bleed onto the screen, and Hittman appears to be driven by the torment that so often comes packaged with sexual awakening. In only two feature-length films, she has proven her ability to get under a viewer’s skin and resonate in a way that normally takes years of failure to achieve. If any of her future efforts match the skill and poise of Beach Rats, she will certainly be mentioned in the conversation of this generation’s great directors. Hittman has been graced with the most powerful tool in an artist’s arsenal: an eye for humanity.