The worlds of Beach Rats and Good Time are not that far apart. Both are set in the not-so-glamorous parts of New York City, where hapless young people look for the next thrill or fix. The film making style is similar, too, with oodles of unflattering close-ups and medium shots. Whereas Good Time is a grim, nihilistic slog, Beach Rats has more humanity. Director Eliza Hittman steels her camera on a young gay man, torn by an identity crisis, as he negotiates two scenes that couldn’t be more apart: the carefree world of youthful summer, and the intensely private, intimate world of online cruising. Torn between two sensibilities, Hittman pushes her hero until his inner turmoil creates outward suspense.
Harris Dickinson plays Frankie, a handsome, lithe young man who lives in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, near Coney Island. When we first meet Frankie, he is on his computer, clicking through an adult video chat site for men. He finds a man who piques his interest, and on the cusp of titillating pleasure, he is almost too shy to proceed. His social circle is to blame, in part, for his reticence: Frankie travels among hyper-masculine beach bros, wandering the boardwalk for weed and girls. He wants to belong, and even picks up Simone (Madeline Weinstein) in a half-hearted attempt at a girlfriend. That ends disastrously – he cannot get it up – and so the film follows Frankie as he negotiates his identity with friends/family who may ostracize it.
There is a hazy sense of how Frankie passes his days. The camera lingers on him, whether he’s posing for selfies or deciding his next move. No interior space is sharply defined, not even his bedroom, and so his body – his thinly concealed pursuit of pleasure – is the film’s chief subject. There are many sex scenes in Beach Rats, although none of them are erotic. They are clumsy and raw, with a mix of silences and awkward groans from lovers who do not yet know each other. All the performances are authentic and natural, although Dickinson leaves the strongest impression. Frankie is goodhearted, if a bit dumb and too much of a follower. Simone and his mother (Kate Hodge) can sense something is wrong, and it’s to Dickinson’s credit that Frankie’s turmoil provokes concern, instead of full on panic.
Most of Beach Rats takes place at night: motels, bedrooms, beaches, and nightclubs. This is a New York that’s almost timeless, utterly separate from Manhattan glamor, where the only modern technology is in service of the same classic needs. Hittman films Frankie and the others without judgment, leaning toward sympathy when it’s appropriate. This all culminates during a heartbreaking sequence, where Frankie mixes his friends and a hook-up. The tragic ending is inevitable, even if Frankie cannot see it, and there are long takes where it seems possible that our hero could finally see past the untenable path he walks. Beach Rats offers no such solace, and instead pushes its hero toward crisis. This a film that ends at a crossroads. Most coming-of-age films end that way, except Hittman does not tilt Frankie in one direction or another. By denying him an answer, this is a film that gives the suggestion of free will – with all the hope and cruelty that suggests.