There’s truth in advertising in the indie movie Beach Rats. Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s drama follows the dubious exploits of a Brooklyn youth who hangs out with his lowlife buddies all day at the beach at Coney Island, while secretly exploring his attraction to men online at night.
A darling of the festival circuit, the movie has won kudos for Hittman at places like Sundance and L.A.’s Outfest for her sensitivity to the issue of sexual identity. But as the movie itself unspools (at a very long-seeming 95 minutes), the delicate subject of sexuality becomes increasingly hijacked by the portrait of young men as pack animals—much as the protagonist’s individuality gets hijacked into the herd mentality.
This is largely Hittman’s point, of course, the anguish of establishing a selfhood that goes against the grain of the accepted “norm.” The problem is that Hittman never manages to convey her character’s anguish as he drifts through his dead-end life. In the central role of Frankie, Harris Dickinson has a certain visual presence, but the part of Frankie as written is the definition of “aimless”—reactive, static, and ultimately uninteresting.
Frankie and his three pals spend their days riding the subway and wandering around Coney Island. It’s summer, so there’s no school, and none of them are employed (they look about 18); on the boardwalk, they tentatively ogle girls and (much more skillfully) pick pockets so they can buy weed. Closer to home, Frankie has a more viable source of drugs, the painkillers prescribed for his father, who’s dying of cancer.
At the boardwalk, Frankie is vamped by Simone (saucy Madeline Weinstein), whom he takes home to his den in his parents’ basement, determined to establish a relationship with her. It’s a dodge to conceal his secret life of posting selfies and talking to older men on a live chat website as he gradually works up the nerve to schedule real-life meet-ups with them. Searching for some kind of road map beyond the attempted guidance of his caring, but harried mom (Kate Hodge), Frankie asks if Simone has ever made out with another girl. Sure, she says, then tells him that girls making out is “hot,” but guys making out is “just gay.”
Random moments like this seem to be leading somewhere. But Hittman squanders viewer interest in Frankie’s conflicted sexuality as we keep following him and his delinquent buds on their repetitive and boring rounds, tanking up at the smoke lounge, or stealing his mom’s jewelry to pawn for cash to buy more drugs. Meanwhile, he drifts through various sexual encounters largely unaffected by any discernible emotion. What ought to be a defining moment when he unexpectedly feels something for one of his dates is lost by Frankie’s inability to make a moral choice or stand up for himself.
But by this time, it’s occurred to the viewer that confusion over his sexual identity is the least of Frankie’s problems. He ought to be more worried about wandering off into the woods at night with strangers. It never occurs to him to aim any higher than the black hole of drugs and apathy he and his deadbeat buddies have mired themselves in. He ought to be concerned that he has no job, no visible skills, no prospects, and no ambition to ever change anything.
A character study is one thing, but the protagonist ought to have a character worth studying. “Coming of age” suggests a transition from one stage to another, some evidence of growth or transformation. But as Frankie doggedly fails to take away anything of value from his experiences, we start to wonder why we should invest so much time and sympathy in him. And once we stop caring about him, the whole movie devolves into ennui.
** (out of four)
With Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, and Kate Hodge. Written and directed by Eliza Hittman. A Neon release. Rated R. 95 minutes.