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The visual influence of Claire Denis’ hypnotic Beau Travail is all over Beach Rats, in its intoxicated observation of tanned young male bodies, both in motion and at rest. But Eliza Hittman’s second feature is very much the work of a filmmaker with her own distinctive voice, combining moody poetry with textural sensuality to evoke the dangerous recklessness that often accompanies sexual discovery. Shifting from the portrait of adolescent female experience in her striking debut, It Felt Like Love, Hittman here turns her penetrating gaze on a Brooklyn teenage boy navigating an even more pivotal transition, played with understated intensity by promising newcomer Harris Dickinson.
Set amid the working-class streets and sleepy shorelines of Sheepshead Bay and Gerritsen Beach, with frequent detours into the surreal carnival world of Coney Island, the movie is a long way from the hipster Brooklyn neighborhoods that have become such familiar indie-film and TV turf of late. And while the leads of both genders are easy on the eye and amply capable of dramatic nuance, the casting of non-actors in secondary roles adds to the scrappy authenticity of this plunge into an outer-borough New York environment we don’t often see onscreen.
French cinematographer Helene Louvart’s credits include Wim Wenders‘ masterful dance documentary Pina, and there’s a similarly beguiling embrace of the physical here, whether the film is observing its introspective protagonist, Frankie (Dickinson), or looking through his eyes at the hazy summertime world and cruisy nighttime playgrounds in which he moves.
Hittman shows no interest in making a standard coming-out film, though the direction in which Frankie’s sexual instincts are steering him is quite apparent as he logs onto online gay hookup sites, at first flirting shyly with older men but soon arranging assignations. That secretive activity is completely divorced from his aimless time with his three swaggering “beach rat” buddies, Jesse (Anton Selyaninov), Nick (Frank Hakaj) and Alexei (David Ivanov); and from his stop-start romance with Simone (Madeline Weinstein), a sexually forward local girl he meets under the fireworks on the Coney Island boardwalk.
Frankie also shows scant connection to life at home, where his mother, Donna (Kate Hodge), chain-smokes in nervous agitation, keeping a lid on her feelings while waiting for her bedridden husband (Neal Huff) to succumb to cancer; and his kid sister Carla (Nicole Flyus) bumps along in her own self-absorbed world, her precocious impatience for maturity echoing that of the central figure in It Felt Like Love. Frankie, seemingly indifferent to the imminent loss of his father, is mainly concerned with pilfering the dying man’s opioid pain meds to get high with his friends. However, it’s crucial to the film’s hold on the viewer that Hittman never judges Frankie, no matter how selfish or uncaring his behavior.
The parallel experiences of Frankie’s sexual encounters with men, on a local cruising beach or in a motel, and his attempts to keep things going with the increasingly wary Simone start to weigh on his equilibrium. That conflict is especially notable in a trippy party-boat sequence during which his overindulgence in recreational drugs makes the proximity of his separate worlds especially uncomfortable. That scene and one that follows showcase terrific work from Weinstein as a hard-edged young woman drawn to the fragile quality beneath Frankie’s Abercrombie & Fitch beauty, but at the same time smart enough to protect herself.
There’s lovely, unforced work also from Hodge as Frankie’s mother, quietly struggling to process her grief while watching her son become increasingly unknowable.
The turning point comes when Frankie involves his friends in his cruising exploits, maintaining cover by insisting that the online connections are merely an easy way to score drugs from guys all too eager to share them. But the inevitability of violence has been signaled from much earlier, with his buddy’s fist functioning like Chekhov’s gun when it strikes a Coney Island novelty punching-bag machine with impressive force. The film brews a potent cocktail of bristling male aggression and inarticulate sexual longing mixed with fear, as Frankie’s burgeoning identity becomes irreconcilably distant from his native habitat. That makes for a tense and unsettling final section, with a conclusion that leaves Frankie reeling at an ambiguous crossroads.
English actor Dickinson stands to make a significant leap on the casting radar with his work here, playing a character floating through his impulsive sexual exploration, seemingly in total denial that any of it involves conscious choices. It’s a characterization that might easily have read as weak, unfeeling, even remote, and yet despite the refusal of both actor and filmmaker to signal Frankie’s vulnerability, his lost quality keeps us in a melancholy grip.
With respect to It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats represents a leap forward in terms of craft and narrative maturity, and also a companion piece in its dreamy, tone-poem feel, and its keen eye and ear for adolescent behavior. Hittman folds Louvart’s evocative summertime images, composer Nicholas Leon’s brooding electronic notes and the fluid rhythms shaped by editors Scott Cummings and Joe Murphy into a raw observational portrait that leaves a haunting impression in its wake.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic)
Cast: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Eric Potempa, Anton Selyaninov, Frank Hakaj, Nicole Flyus, David Ivanov, Harrison Sheehan, Neal Huff
Production companies: Cinereach, in association with Animal Kingdom, Secret Engine
Director-screenwriter: Eliza Hittman
Producers: Drew Houpt, Brad Becker-Parton, Paul Mezey, Andrew Goldman
Executive producers: Philipp Engelhorn, Michael Raisler, David Kaplan
Director of photography: Helene Louvart
Production designer: Grace Yun
Costume designer: Olga Mill
Music: Nicholas Leon
Editors: Scott Cummings, Joe Murphy
Casting: Susan Shopmaker