Being in the closet, struggling with self acceptance and worrying about what those close to you will think, is an emotional nightmare for anybody who has been through it. In this regard, Beach Rats is no dissimilar to countless other LGBT narratives, as the theme of self realisation and acceptance transforms in to an unavoidable nightmare that threatens to ruin pre-existing relationships with those close to you. Luckily, that’s where the similarities end, as director Eliza Hittman’s sophomore feature (following her 2013 debut It Felt Like Love) deals with coming out in a stylish, hyper masculine way that lays bare all the vulnerabilities of a character putting on a tough front to hide what he believes are temporary demons.
In the first scene, we are introduced to Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a Brooklyn jock who spends his free time either hanging with his bros on the beachfront, or scrolling through an online chatroom looking for older guys to talk to. When at the beach one evening, he meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein), who after an embarrassing failed one night stand soon becomes his girlfriend – while in secret, he starts meeting up with older men, confronting his own sexuality while maintaining a heterosexual front.
Describing the film via plot synopsis doesn’t do the film justice, as it is the manner in which the story unfolds that makes it unique for the genre. The impending threat of being discovered, so inherent in all closeted LGBT storylines, is here subverted in unusual ways – moments where he and his friends cross paths with a former one night stand, or stumble upon his internet history, take left field turns, that actually helps develop the character further and increase the confused feelings he is in need of confronting. There are no easy resolutions, nor should there be; this character lives in a hyper masculine world (albeit one mercifully free of sexism- a subtle screenwriting choice that I am utterly thankful for) and has been seen to have a girlfriend, so he never appears gay to his peers, even when its spelled out blatantly in plain sight.
The film rests entirely on the shoulders of Harris Dickinson, a British actor who completely disappears in to the lead character. I was genuinely taken aback discovering afterwards that he wasn’t American, due to how effortlessly convincing he is as the average vest wearing, white trash bro. This is a brave role to take on- one that relies on understatement in the face of emotional turmoil. His face despondent and his voice monotone, Dickinson creates an atmosphere of vulnerability around the character that is hiding in plain sight. It’s a hard job to pull off, but he does it well, addressing his friends with such nonchalance that it’s easy to see how he managed to hide his true self for so long.
Behind the camera, Eliza Hittman’s aesthetic seems influenced by the trap music the lead characters listen to, which reminded me at times of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, but with caricatured beach bums replaced with emotionally flawed human beings. Through sheer coincidence alone (as this was in post-production by the time it premiered), the film also recalls Moonlight, due to the delicate way Hittman directs and stylises beachfront sexual encounters- although does allow herself to depict more onscreen sexuality than Barry Jenkins’ comparatively chaste Oscar winner.
The rush of heading through trees to find a secret beach also reminded me somewhat of 2013’s Stranger By the Lake, the Hitchcockian murder mystery set in a French cruising spot- as this narrative progresses towards the end, there is equally a distinctive feeling of dread, albeit this time because of the lead character’s hidden feelings threatening to be messily exposed. Despite these artsy comparisons, Beach Rats reveals itself to be a more emotionally direct film beneath the style, not to mention one that is surprisingly empathetic and free of the sensationalised homophobia you’d usually expect from characters in a hyper masculine movie of this variety.
Beach Rats is a new take on a classic coming out story – and it feels thrillingly contemporary. This is undoubtably one of 2017’s best LGBT films.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of NEON