It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Editor-in-chief Sofia Kourous Vazquez reviews Eliza Hittman’s poetic feature.
Some may call 2017 a good year for queer cinema. At the February Academy Awards, Moonlight took home its Best Picture. British film God’s Own Country, currently still in cinemas, has achieved wide release and critical acclaim. Call Me By Your Name, recently premiered at London Film Festival, anticipates similar response. Now Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats joins these releases with sensitive and understated flair. Along with its central theme of sexuality, the film is a gentle glimpse into a chapter of a coming-of-age story. Soft and uniquely set, Beach Rats throbs with quiet energy and vulnerability.
Beach Rats follows the life of Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a Brooklyn teen dealing with a terminally ill father and an increasingly confusing sexual orientation. He spends his time skylarking with friends on the boardwalk, smoking pot, and taking mirror selfies with the flash on. It’s a life of hyper-masculinity — girls, working out, cruising around looking tough — and one at odds with Frankie’s exploration of online gay chat sites. Dickinson, truly a breakout star in this role, delicately portrays a young man who knows exactly what he is but doesn’t know what to do about it.
Beach Rats is a character study above all else. The plot is fuzzy; it lopes along the seashore, browses games at the arcade, and mindlessly takes the train down to Coney Island. The viewers are silent companions to the activities of these teens, but when alone with Frankie we get an intimate understanding he lacks from anyone in his life. It’s these quieter moments that inform our observation of him in public contexts. We are taught to read subtle flickers of emotion on his face, and understand the weight of Frankie’s glances. In the local park, he notices his sister and her boyfriend holding hands on the swings. Reading past the bullying protective older brother act, we know when his eyes dwell on the interlocked fingers he is really thinking I want that.
A sense of longing oozes from the fabric of the film. Frankie certainly wants things — sex, companionship, perhaps love — but, as he often says to the men he video chats online, he’s not sure what he likes. The camera moves shyly between glimpses of muscles, arms, legs, and beads of gathering sweat on tanned skin, dealing in stolen glances and the almost overwhelming sensuality of young masculinity. The visuals are shrouded in the warm and tinted veil of Hélène Louvart‘s 16mm cinematography. Her work is light and summery, with a hint of bittersweet.
In the final portion of the film, Hittman slightly abandons the stylistically formless story-line for something more active and bold. Frankie’s bros, belonging to the strand of his life kept until this point successfully separate from his sexual experimentation, come along to one of his gay meetups, questionably passed off as an easy way to score drugs. Introducing a climax to the tension is necessary at this point, and concluding such an elusive film is an understandable challenge, but unfortunately in attempting to meet it the writing becomes inconsistent and flow is lost. The friends, who we’ve come to see as passive and aimless, gain a sudden sense of drive and unexpected threat. A glimpse of this potential earlier in the film would’ve at least slightly prepared us for their burst of homophobic energy. In fact, we lacked insight into their attitudes towards sexuality in general, something that could’ve woven Beach Rats’ two strands together into a tighter helix.
Representation of Frankie’s relationships to the women in his life leaves something to be desired; that isn’t necessarily depth but might be more screen time. Kate Hodge inhabits Donna, the boy’s mother, with naturalism and personality. Lacking is the space and time to understand the context of their relationship and family life, but the film designates itself as a conveyor through image rather than word very early on — we get to know little more than what is presented. Simone (Madeline Weinstein), Frankie’s girlfriend, is also portrayed effectively. Simone leads their affair, and is the one to step away when Frankie’s hot-and-cold, distracted persona, often verging on cruel and not made any easier by his drug use (…and the fact that he’s gay), becomes too much of a problem. Her maturity and security in life counters his state of disorientation. Thankfully, her agency just about elevates her from being merely Frankie’s foil.
Beach Rats is a good film, but it will have to fight comparison with Moonlight to be remembered. It’s beautiful, but in similar ways to Barry Jenkins’ lauded drama: it shimmers, it glistens, it’s shadowy and quiet. Strong lead acting helms its journey into an individual’s grappling with a seemingly oxymoronic existence. However, Hittman can set her film aside in its wandering, documentary style. With a unique poetic cinematic language, Beach Rats carves out its space.
Beach Rats premiered at London Film Festival on . Watch the trailer below: