Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats is a study on the mind and body of a closeted Brooklyn teenager Frankie, with an enigmatic breakthrough performance from lead Harris Dickinson. Frankie cruises for sex with older men on webcam chat rooms, gets high with his shirtless friends, and starts a relationship with a sexually charged young woman. All of these serve as some kind of escape from Frankie’s separate selves.
For all of its authenticity and frankness, Beach Rats is a bit of a slog. Dickinson is appropriately reserved, his performative grumble of masculinity giving way to a boyish timidity. The actor only opens up so much while serving us with a near constant glimmer of underlying sadness. Each disappointment Frankie faces is like watching the light fade in his eyes bit by bit – surprisingly, his unfulfilling gay hookups also do the same. As Frankie is caught on a cycle of unfulfilled identity, it’s Dickinson that shows the shame and anger at his desperate need to be seen or to hide.
But the film reveals its own lack of curiosity beyond the surface in presenting Frankie’s lack of self-expression, ogling his body in a way that feels like another source of oppression for him. The film lacks specificity in its passive presentation, reducing Frankie to stereotype despite Dickinson’s soulful work. When it flirts with more interesting dynamics, like the prodding of his mother or the homophobia of the girlfriend, the film only goes so deep.
However, Hittman composes quieter sequences with evocative images that cut deep into Frankie’s hidden longing and desire. In tacky neons and elemental waves, the world around Frankie moves with an uncontrollable force like the one inside him – it’s both fundamentally appealing and terrifying, a way of burrowing into his headspace that feels physical for the viewer. Things are frustratingly limited, making Beach Rats deep but quite narrow – a bold approach that needs more of a human element to truly resonate.
The film is somewhat limited by its own intentions, working in an angle that doesn’t give much revelation to a well-studied subject even as its immersiveness feels realized. It’s not that the film assumes queerness in performative dude bros (though it does highlight the homoeroticism of the culture), but it doesn’t grant them much depth beyond the obvious. Unfortunately for Beach Rats, soulfulness and flesh leaves you wanting as much as it does for its protagonist.