Starring Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge,
Eliza Hittman creates the types of movies that unfortunately reinforce the worst stereotypes about teenagers, homosexuals and those struggling with identity. Her latest Beach Rats, which debuted at Sundance, is a parent’s worst nightmare. Beach Rats might make the viewer uncomfortable, and we are talking beyond American Honey territory, more along the lines of Mysterious Skin type of uncomfortable. Hittman does nab a fascinating lead (out of England because few upcoming American male actors would take on, and shed off, a role this revealing) out of Dickinson, who makes his feature film debut. The success of recent best picture winner Moonlight will draw comparisons to Beach Rats, both deal with young men struggling to understand identity.
By day, 19-year-old confident teenager Frankie (Dickinson) enjoys the summer offerings with his tattooed, smoke buddies in and around the Coney Island Pier. By nightfall, Frankie becomes a shy, curious online visitor to gay hookup websites. When asked what he likes online, he responds with “I don’t know”. He is being pursued by a local girl Simone (Weinstein), more interested in his looks than all his red flag flaws: no job, drug addiction, and concerning inability to perform in the bedroom. Frankie essentially leads two lives and when his terminally ill father passes away, the drug abuse worsens, as does his need for male attention.
Hittman never dives deep enough into the story, it’s more of a glimpse, everything is on the surface.
The most impressive element to Beach Rats is the performance Hittman derives from Dickinson. His ability to portray different personas that are different as day is to night is jarring. He even looks different, or perhaps she shoots the actor differently depending on which version of himself he’s playing. With his friends and girlfriend, he is macho, mature and in charge. His friends follow his lead. With the men, online and in person, he is a follower, child-like in his gaze and posture. What destroys this film, and many like it, is the lack of sympathy we feel for the character. Like many films that focus on drug addiction, it’s often difficult for a general audience to care about a character who exhibits zero redeeming moral value and spins farther into decline with every running minute.
Barry Jenkins Moonlight showed us a character through various stages of life struggling with similar feelings and experiences. Yet in that story we saw an abused child, someone who had nothing, yearning for anything. Here, while certainly not even middle class, Frankie has a loving family, opportunity, good looks. He is choosing to be destructive. There are missed opportunities everywhere in Hittman’s screenplay. Moonlight took a very subtle approach to it’s characters sexuality exploration, opening the story up to any and every human that’s ever doubted themselves. Beach Rats does the exact opposite, it shows exactly what type a film Moonlight might have become if it had included sex scenes. Very keen on celebrating the youthful male body, Hittman never dives deep enough into the story, it’s more of a glimpse, everything is on the surface. 90 minutes feels like an eternity in this subject matter that portrays the vilest aspects of human nature. It will leave the viewer empty and somewhat baffled where is concludes.
A film that reinforces negative stereotypes denying the audience any empathy for the subjects.