Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Two Sides of One Man Struggle to Coexist in Beach Rats

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) has a secret. He spends his night surfing internet chatrooms for gay men looking for hookups. It's all part of Frankie exploring his sexuality. Any person exploring this side of themselves should feel glorious getting to touch upon new parts of themselves. Unfortunately, Frankie is daunted by how his family, and especially his ultra-macho friends would take this news. So he keeps this side of himself buried away. Frankie remains firmly in the closet save for brief indulgences like nighttime sex sessions with men on those internet chatrooms. Frankie hopes to draw a firm line between "the real world" and his suppressed homosexuality. How long can the divide last? What lengths will Frankie go to keep this part of himself a secret?

The three films of writer/director Eliza Hittman all explore how teenagers navigate their own personal identity under the pressures of society. Her most recent effort, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, for example, saw a seventeen-year-old girl trying to have autonomy over her body in the face of sparse available resources to help her. In the case of Beach Rats, protagonist Frankie is surrounded by reminders that the people around him have a very limited view of sexuality at best. Frankie's dude friends constantly make jokes at the expense of men who aren't ultra-masculine while a woman Frankie is seeing speaks of men kissing in disparaging terms.

The process of self-exploration in terms of sexuality is already a difficult enough profess without these daily microaggressions adding further anxiety to the proceedings. It's easy to see why Frankie feels pressured to stay in the closet. Because he can't openly speak on his sexuality or his feelings about it, Hittman opts to turn extended segments of Beach Rats into a mood piece. Pieces of bright lighting as Frankie walks across the Coney Island pier or camerawork used in a scene depicting Frankie's hotel room rendevous with an older man are able to viscerally communicate what's going on inside Frankie's head. In the case of Beach Rats, less is definitely more.

Part of the mood in Beach Rats eventually involves a sense of escalating dread as Frankie's two disparate worlds begin to crash into one another. Watching him slowly begin to grapple with this clash in the worst way possible (he indulges his bro-friends worst impulses, basically) is a quietly harrowing experience. Hittman has led the viewer to understand the psychology of Frankie and that lends an extra sense of power to his decisions in the third act of Beach Rats. We understand why he's chosen to go down these paths but that doesn't make his eventual behavior any less chilling. If anything, understanding his motivations just lends an extra sense of sorrow to the most brutal moments of Beach Rats.

Meanwhile, another way Beach Rats employs a trademark trait of Hittman's works is by setting its story in more everyday environments of New York City. Countless movies have been set in the Big Apple and they usually involve the same glamorous tourist destinations you'd find on a postcard. In Hittman's works, though, the characters occupy or wander around in a more low-income area of NYC. The most famous place Frankie ends up in during Beach Rats is Coney Island. Otherwise, he's walking down less well-known streets & bridges and waltzing into obscure shops. These unique backdrops further reinforce the sense of distinctiveness permeating Beach Rats.

In the lead role of Beach Rats is Harris Dickinson, a kid who seems to be blowing up right now between his major roles in Trust, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, and the upcoming The King's Man. Anyone wondering why Dickinson is suddenly everywhere can watch Beach Rats and be reassured he isn't the next Brenton Thwaites, this guy has chops as a performer. The inherently restrained aesthetic of Beach Rats means Dickinson's performance relieves heavily on his ability to communicate so much without dialogue. It's an acting challenge Dickinson turns out to be well-equipped for and he only gets better as the movie goes on. When Beach Rats goes darker, Dickinson really thrives in portraying the tortured nature of Frankie.

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