Mark Reviews Movies

Beach Rats


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Eliza Hittman

Cast: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Neal Huff, Nicole Flyus, Frank Hakaj, David Ivanov, Anton Selyaninov, Harrison Sheehan

MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 8/25/17 (limited); 9/1/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 31, 2017

The protagonist of Beach Rats is locked in his own head. The world passes by him, and he only barely seems to notice. People talk to him, but he doesn't appear to be listening. It's clear that he is constantly thinking of something—of how to act, of how to look, of how to sound on the few occasions that he does speak to someone. There's a lot to this young man, but the movie doesn't quite know how to communicate what is beneath the surface, except in the broadest terms.

Part of that is the character, because he's hiding a secret about himself—something he is certain is wrong in some way and something he wants to change but cannot. The opening scene reveals it, as Frankie (Harris Dickinson) browses a video-chat website for gay men in Brooklyn. The men on the screen are there for anyone to see—their faces and/or bodies exposed in light. Frankie sits on a chair in a shadow, with a baseball cap perched on his head in such a way that the brim provides cover for his face.

He can still see the screen, but any man looking at Frankie has to ask him to take off the hat. It's a layer of protection, lest anyone recognize him. The last thing Frankie wants, it seems, is to be recognized.

These scenes, we are led to believe, represent Frankie's true self—or as much of his true self as he's willing to admit. What everyone else sees of him, when Frankie is out in the world among friends and family, is only somewhat different. He's still quiet and unassuming, but he's even more protective of his true self—enough that the people around him don't notice.

A lot of what they believe of him is from their own experience. His mother (played by Kate Hodge) assumes he's a "normal" young man, who stays in the basement of the family house for privacy to do whatever "normal" young men do. With his friends, he goes to Coney Island to wander, eat, and ogle the women who are there. Frankie goes along with it, even flirting with Simone (Madeline Weinstein), a pretty young woman who believes she knows what a guy such as Frankie is like and what he wants from her.

The other significant part of how writer/director Eliza Hittman communicates Frankie's dilemma—between his true self and the persona he believes he has to show—is in the story. It's focused on about three aspects of Frankie's life—his secret, his relationship with Simone, the way he interacts with family and friends—but still, somehow, seems rambling. This is, admittedly, a reflection of the character, who has no job, no obvious goals for his life, and no set purpose. Throughout the day, he hangs with his friends. Late at night, he goes online and arranges meetings with men in the forest and motel rooms.

Everything that happens, though, is familiar and clichéd. There's no tension within Frankie's dilemma, because what happens seems preordained from the start.

In terms of Simone, Frankie spends most of his time with her leading her on to continue believing what she wants to believe. He has excuses for everything. When he can't bring himself to have sex with her after bringing her back to his house, it's because he's too drunk and high. After avoiding her for a while but feeling pressure to have her as a cover for his secret (His friends won't stop talking about her, suggesting that if Frankie hasn't had sex with her that there's something wrong with him—the last thing he wants them thinking), he brings up his family situation. For a short while, the story includes the fact that Frankie's father is terminally ill. The entire ordeal has nothing to do with Frankie, except to provide him with a convenient excuse to give to Simone.

At a certain point, of course, Frankie can't keep up the charade. He tries, despite his mother, who suspects that something is wrong with her son, trying to distance him from his friends and even stating outright that Frankie can tell her anything. There's something decidedly off-balanced about the way Hittman presents Frankie's conflict. His friends, who seem to be the primary reason that Frankie keeps his sexuality a secret, are an anonymous group and barely figure into the story until the third act, which brings Frankie's two lives together in a predictable, if unanswered, confrontation. They're an unconvincing reason for Frankie's lie.

Whatever keeps Frankie from stopping his self-deception remains a bit of a mystery, and that lack of genuine insight keeps the character at an arm's length. It might be possible to view that mystery as the entire point of Beach Rats, and maybe that's why Hittman's observations are less concerned with psychological insights and narrative structure—looking far more closely at the ambling, day-to-day happenings of faces and bodies in this place. It's like a dream, these people and this location, but there's simply too much evidence that points toward the movie possessing a specific purpose to apply the logic of a dream to it.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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