Frankie, the young man at the heart of Eliza Hittman's sophomore film Beach Rats, doesn't know what he wants. That's not an uncommon trope for protagonists living in Brooklyn these days; shows like Girls and Search Party center on aimless young Brooklynites stumbling through life.
But Frankie is not Hannah Horvath — his conflict is not played for comedy. Instead, Frankie is tormented by questions of his identity, of what he is seeking in the world. He is tortured by the closet.
"I don't know what I like," Frankie says repeatedly during Beach Rats. Arguably, he never figures it out.
Beach Rats, screened for critics as part of the New Directors/New Films festival in New York City this March, isn't long on plot. Frankie smokes weed, does drugs and hangs out with three jocks he keeps insisting (perhaps not jokingly) aren't his friends. He dates a girl, Simone, but hooks up with older men off a local, Chatroulette-esque site. His mental health worsens after he loses his father to cancer.
In short, this is mostly a slice-of-life drama with sublime direction and a heart-wrenching performance from newcomer Harris Dickinson at its center. For many, its wandering pace will be frustrating. For others, all the authentic character beats and dynamite scenes will be more than enough.
Hittman won the directing award at Sundance Film Festival this year, and it's easy to see why. Beach Rats is an ugly movie in the best sense, with handheld cinematography (credit to director of photography Hélène Louvart) that emphasizes the griminess of Frankie's part of Brooklyn. Williamsburg, this is not. Clandestine hookups in the woods are filmed explicitly, the camera never shying away from naked bodies.
The nudity is not titillating, however. Yes, Dickinson's body is quite beautiful, but it's a dangerous beauty. Frankie's body was built out of boredom and frustration with his life and his choices. It's a body he regularly abuses with drugs, giving it over to men who grope him with eagerness. Whatever sexy joy one gets out of seeing Dickinson's bare butt is lost when considering the darkness of Frankie's life.
Dickinson offers much more than his body to the character, though. The British actor (with an uncanny Brooklyn accent) is nothing short of a revelation, mining Frankie's internal aggression artfully. In any given scene, Dickinson's face flashes with a dozen different emotions. One scene, in which he asks Simone if she finds two guys making out hot — only for her to tell him that girls doing it is hot, but guys kissing is "just gay" — is heartbreaking. Frankie shifts from shaken to hurt to miserable to playing it cool to moving on within the course of seconds, and Dickinson doesn't miss a beat.
Beach Rats recalls our latest best picture winner Moonlight in themes, if not quite in quality. What's happening around Frankie and Dickinson is not as strong as the ensemble work in Moonlight, and a late-movie turn of events that's as plot-driven as this film gets makes the film's approach a bit shallow. There's tremendous stuff here; suffering in comparison to Moonlight, which many have called a modern masterpiece, is hardly a sin.
We make that comparison only to note that more, different stories about LGBTQ characters are being told in indie films. Beach Rats hits some notes that Moonlight doesn't. Another movie will come along that will feature a story found in neither of these films. We need more stories like these, not fewer.
If for nothing else, Beach Rats must be seen for Dickinson. His is as brilliant a star turn as we've seen in years. With Hittman's assured direction behind him, he shines amid the grime of Frankie's life.