Beach Rats (2017, dir. Eliza Hittman) is about Frankie, a teenage boy in Brooklyn who experiments with drugs by day and hooks up with older men by night. While the setting and content matter may evoke similarities to Moonlight (2016, dir. Barry Jenkins), such as the occasional neon color palette and beach scenes, the similarities end there. While Moonlight is a delicate portrayal of an African-American man’s journey towards self-acceptance, Beach Rats is a harsh and dark window into the closet with no resolution and no indication of hope. Beach Rats did not make me feel good. If anything, it made me feel terrible. But as much as I wanted to hate it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Eliza Hittman set out to make a movie about a world “where there is no coming out,” and she succeeded, for better or worse. The following review will contain major spoilers.
The movie begins with Frankie taking selfies in a mirror as he stands shirtless and positions a baseball cap to cover his eyes. He tries again and again, selfie after selfie, changing positions, stance, pose – trying to emulate something. As the movie continues, we begin to see what his life is composed of: his straight friends, the girl he is supposed to like, and his broken family. With no queer friends to confide in, he turns to the only source he can find – online chat rooms to meet and hook up with other men. The movie becomes systemic as we see his daily life: friends, drugs, home, computer, sex, repeat. Hittman chooses to balance his day life with his nightlife and his internal self with his external self.
In public, Frankie doesn’t make decisions that he wants to make but rather decisions that he feels he has to make. When he meets a girl in the most romantic of ways (during a fireworks display) he doesn’t feel anything towards her, but after his friends make fun of him for not making a move, they begin dating. As their relationship becomes sexual, Hittman cuts between hookups with older men and hookups with his girlfriend. The act is never about love making, but with his girlfriend it becomes about penance; every time he has sex with a man, he feels obligated to have sex with a woman. Hittman shows us his internalized homophobia and the ways he feels he must punish himself.
On the other hand, the hookups with men aren’t sensual either. While in any other movie the scenes would have been sexy and erotic, these hookups are anything but glamorous. They aren’t shot sensually or with delicacy; when they sleep together it doesn’t feel erotic, it feels punishing. As Frankie walks to the beach with these older men, the scenes are shot with harsh white frontal lighting. Hittman doesn’t attempt to make the scene look natural – instead, we are intruding on these men and we are fully aware of it.
Shot on 16mm film by Hélène Louvart, Beach Rats looks grainy, bleak, and is intentionally under-lit, giving the audience a dark and claustrophobic experience. Beach Rats shows you what the closet feels like. Hittman chooses to tell the story through a majority of close-ups, allowing silence and expressions to say what words could never: every stare, every twitch of the lips, every inhale telling a story. What Frankie is afraid to say we can see; the movie isn’t about the words they say, it’s about the silence in between them.
A common critique of the movie is the way the camera lingers on the male body, nearly objectifying it. All of the actors are toned white men and at times it looks more like a Calvin Klein ad than a movie, but that’s the point. Objectification can be defined as “the action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object,” but this film is not degrading the male bodies; it is praising them. Male bodies dominate in this film. We are in Frankie’s world, in the closet, seeing these beautiful male bodies around him. Hittman is not objectifying; Beach Rats is not about acceptance and change. She makes the film about longing.
The screenplay itself provides for a delicate and heartbreaking experience. As Frankie continues to date his girlfriend, she continually asks him, “Do you think I’m pretty?” and rather than answer, Frankie returns the question, “Do you think I’m pretty?” While at first it may seem like he is taunting her, we come to realize that it goes far deeper than that. Frankie is not merely making fun of her but searching for validation just like she is. We know he is physically attractive, we can see it throughout the movie, but the question isn’t asking about his body – he truly wants to know, is he pretty inside?
Perhaps one of the biggest influences in his life is his group of straight friends, the people he sees every day who don’t know about his queer identity and perhaps would not accept him. Frankie is their friend because it is the easiest life he knows, and to cut them off would mean to be alone. In one instance Frankie says to them, “You’re not my friends.” Although it is meant as a joke, we see another layer of Frankie – he truly means that they are not his friends. He is stuck in the life he has created.
Hittman herself wrote the script and shared her inspiration for the story: a Facebook profile photo which evolved into her opening frame. Midway through the movie, Hittman revisits the opening scene with Frankie trying to take a selfie for his online profile in a mirror. He tilts his shirtless body in different directions, he pulls his cap down over his eyes, we see the conflict between hyper-masculinity and homoeroticism. As Frankie stands in front of the mirror we see him grasping for a persona he doesn’t understand. The man in the mirror is seductive, sexy, mysterious, gay – he is the man Frankie wishes to be but cannot accept.
It is hard to digest the movie’s ending because it does not lead to a happily ever after. We see the movie resort to violence that is truly heartbreaking, unbearable, and, in my opinion, inevitable. Frankie is on his way to meet up with an older man when his friends tag along. Since Frankie cannot explain his situation, he plays it off as a joke and claims he is using this older gay man for his weed. When the man refuses to turn their hookup into a kickback, they decide to jump him for his stash. On the car ride to the ambush location, Frankie talks to the older man and for the first time someone asks him about his identity. We see his hesitation – he has never had to verbalize who he is or how he feels in this way. As they walk towards the beach where Frankie’s friends wait, he changes his mind and tells the man to run, but it is too late. Every choice Frankie had made led to that moment; in not accepting himself he had to deal with the consequences he had created. After jumping the man and taking his weed, Frankie and his friends run away, but Frankie lingers just long enough to show the regret in his eyes.
The final scene offers no closure, as we simply see Frankie wandering the pier alone. We don’t know what happens to Frankie – we will never know if he comes out, if he leaves his friends, or if he makes amends with the people around him. Instead, we see him looking up at a fireworks display, silently staring, glossy-eyed, coming to terms with where he is in his life. The movie doesn’t make us feel good; it doesn’t pat us on the back and tell us the world will be okay. Instead, it shows us the internal struggle of someone who can’t come to terms with who they are. The moments of silence represent how we feel, the emptiness inside as we stare into the world unsure of where we fit in.
Beach Rats is not a happy movie, but it is a movie that captures emotion on film – genuine, inexplicable emotion. Overshadowed by far happier movies, Beach Rats offers a unique experience as one of 2017’s most intimate films. Did we need this movie? I’m not sure. But did Hittman get it right? I think so. It is unclear who the intended audience was; heterosexual people are the audience who should see it, but queer people are the audience who will understand it. Beach Rats shows what it feels like to be stuck, and in the end is a portrait of a young man who struggles to find himself and embrace who he is.