Growing up, the summertime is the ultimate period of freedom; a time of movement, of restlessness, of inhibition, of exploration.
It is never clearly specified whether “Beach Rats” is a summer-set film, but it sure does feel like one. And it’s not only because of the South Brooklyn beaches and boardwalks and shirtless boys. It is that same sense of restlessness and passage that makes Eliza Hittman’s second feature an essential late-summer gem.
“Beach Rats” follows adolescent tough-guy Frankie (Harris Dickinson) and his boys as they get high, play handball, and look for girls under the Coney Island fireworks. His outward masculinity cloaks his inner desire for older men, which he finds in late-night chat rooms. After meeting his feisty girlfriend (Madeline Weinstein), his inner conflict begins to simmer.
[Hittman’s] eye for subtlety is a remarkable gift, guiding the frame with a careful, unobtrusive hand.
The most fascinating part about “Beach Rats” is Frankie’s vague openness about not knowing “what he likes.” He never addresses his sexuality in explicit terms toward either side of his struggle. Instead, director Eliza Hittman lets Frankie’s actions guide the story. Her eye for subtlety is a remarkable gift, guiding the frame with a careful, unobtrusive hand. She lets Frankie’s tough demeanor erode, without ever chipping away at it to quicken the cracking, giving the film a feeling of docudrama. While this can, at times, drag the pace, it nonetheless is a captivating character study.
The likeness of “Moonlight” in “Beach Rats” is visible but acute, and a comparison should halt at the simple details. But it is Hittman’s deft naturalism that quickly separates it from the operatic Best Picture-winner in a formal sense. The grit of 16mm coats a sheen of timelessness, the only stark props of the 21st century being Frankie’s internet chatrooms and the vape store he frequents. In this way, the film feels nostalgic, beyond the nostalgia of adolescence. But, most importantly, it gives the film clear authenticity and it avoids being a standard coming out story. It’s an exploration that opens more dramatic doors than it closes. But identity, especially queer identity, is a restless journey. “Beach Rats” is all the better for recognizing this.
“Beach Rats” is rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language. 95 minutes. Now playing at ArcLight Hollywood.