If there is one thing independent cinema prides itself on, its authenticity. Artists operate outside of the traditional mainstream studio structure in order to tell stories that feel more personal, raw and unfiltered. Often times this raw, uncompromising storytelling, choice elicits much critical praise and admiration from the few that discover the film. However, is it possible for a film to feel both authentic and unpleasant? “Beach Rats” unearths a unique, yet familiar struggle for those unable to define their sexuality, much less come out of the closet. Yet, this empathizing situation pairs itself with morally reprehensible behavior. As much as one wants to see what makes the lead character tick, it is hard to get past the emotional and physical manipulation he stumbles into. “Beach Rats” feels as substantive as a grainy mirror selfie on a hook up app. There’s beauty shrouded by a whole lot of nonsense.
Frankie (Harris Dickinson) spends much of his summer hanging out with friends and getting high on the beach near Coney Island. Here he meets Simone (a particularly winning Madeline Weinstein), whom he shares a clumsy almost night in bed with. Yet, Frankie seems more drawn to the men he meets anonymously through a chat room online. As the trysts on the beach with strange older men grow more frequent, Frankie sets his attention on Simone to act as his beard. At home, Frankie’s Father, Joe (Neal Huff), lies comatose, succumbing to cancer. Meanwhile, his Mother, Donna (Kate Hodge), tries in vain to involve herself in her son’s life, despite signs he wants her nowhere near him.
Director Eliza Hittman demonstrates a powerful command of visual storytelling. For all the movie’s misgivings on the character end, Hittman exhibits a real interest in the subjects of the film. More so, she takes measures to marry the visual palette of the film to the character’s inner turmoil and confusion. Shot on 16mm, cinematographer Hélène Louvart emerges as the MVP of the film. The camera peers in on Frankie’s sexual awakening in both powerful and lurid ways. One sees both the beauty and emptiness in the fireworks that litter the sky every Friday at Coney Island. The film houses a powerful cinematic voice that one hopes continues on to more projects.
Hittman exposes more than just flesh with Harris Dickinson, but also some raw talent. Putting aside my feelings on the character, Dickinson commands the many close ups and takes us on Frankie’s journey. He is adept at capturing both the empty-headed Adonis and sensitive teenager within Frankie. However, Madeline Weinstein emerges as the character we wish to follow. Weinstein creates a girl who is also exploring her sexuality, but ends up doing so with a partner who gives little thought to her needs. She both knows what’s up, but is able to put herself in some level of denial to achieve the relationship she envisions. Her journey becomes more compelling than the sea of toxic masculinity we’re subjected to.
Here is where the storytelling goes wrong. Yes, it is a common pitfall of lesser movies to make thornier characters more “likable” or “relatable.” Effective storytelling does not always need to engender empathy, but should bring about new understanding. Frankie’s repression manifests itself in drug use and frequent random hookups that may or may not be safe. Ok, fine. We have seen that before. Frankie strings Simone along and alienates his family. Struggling to see how this is compelling. This is just the base for more serious selfish actions that do not just make Frankie look bad, they cloud our judgment of what his struggle and point of view actually are. Why are we following this character and what are we getting out of this film? Is the point merely just to state traditional masculinity can be toxic? We’ve seen this type of coming out story before.
It is ultimately reductive to compare any film to last year’s masterpiece Best Picture winner “Moonlight.” However, so much of this plays as the lower white class version of “Moonlight,” that these unfavorable comparisons come top of mind. Whereas that film marries its striking visuals to an involving human story, the strong visual components in “Beach Rats” latch on like a barnacle to this traditional indie piece. The cinematography searches for more interesting components of Frankie to linger on. However, instead the film concludes, much as the audience does, that Frankie is as skin deep as his mirror selfies. We spend enough time with him to understand the world he lives in. However, there is never enough to justify his fear, alienation and lashing out.