51. Beach Rats, directed by Eliza Hittman

51. Beach Rats, directed by Eliza Hittman

Rolling With the Boys

By Rose Marel

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) lives mainly in the dark. Forced into hidden shadows, he’s both trapped there and free within it. Alone in the closet of his reluctant identity, Frankie struggles as he tries to spread his wings inside the oppressive secret of homosexuality. Outwardly, however, he plays the role of the hyper-masculine youth, rolling with the guys as they hang and score drugs.

Only able to bear exposing the truth of his inner conflict for brief snatches at a time, Frankie captures himself in the sporadic blaze of a camera. Bursts of white light shatter the darkness of his room, like admissions of desire, as his true self breaches the surface. Compelled to act, he lives in these flashes before shrinking back into the dark, covering his face with a tilted black hat as he trawls the web. On here he searches for men – older men – without knowing what he really wants or likes, and without certainty or complete ownership of self. “I can’t see you”, someone says. Maybe that’s what he wants. Maybe he can’t even bear to see himself.

This darkness weaves itself throughout the film in tandem with our protagonist’s internal tug-of-war. There’s a level of shame attached to the dark, weighted in its shrouded folds. It hides what we do not want seen, and masks our imperfections. With these connotations, Frankie’s gradual rendezvous with chat-room men all take place under heavily darkened, dusty light. They meet in bushes and beaches, always in blackness. Meanwhile, Frankie’s home life is as fractured as he is, with a father dying in the living room and a younger sister modelling herself after the older girls she sees around town. Their mother tries to do her best, but is clearly flailing under the pressures of it all, made worse by her son’s taciturn refusal to let her in.

Early on, in what should be a romantic setting as fireworks colour the sky over the Coney Island Boardwalk, a girl catches Frankie’s eye. His disinterest forces her to pursue him, and she doesn’t appear disheartened by his resistance. That is, until an off-putting sexual encounter between them, made worse by Frankie’s layer of self-denial. Only afterwards does he realise that a girl could be the perfect shield. Visuals serve a primary purpose here, not only as a filmic device, but also as a thematic one. Once the couple are more officially together, their relationship is one of pictures. A selfie here and there surely speaks louder than words, right?Image result for beach rats eliza hittman

Because they rarely speak. In fact, Hittman saturates the film in silence. The music, too, is subtle. Step-like, secretive melodies that sound like someone tiptoeing up stairs. Frankie’s male friendships are characterised by physicality rather than conversation. Their interactions revolve around drugs or handball, and dialogue between them lacks any verbal or personal substance, veering instead towards mumbled locker-talk, which only serves to more tightly twist the alienation within Frankie. It’s as if emotion doesn’t exist or, at least, shouldn’t amongst them.

Frankie flattens himself to fit in, as many men do, suffocated by a form of toxic masculinity that crushes a connection to self and others. We sense that Frankie simply needs someone with whom he can confide – a level of real intimacy – but for him, it doesn’t exist. So instead, he burrows further and further into himself, self-medicating more on stashes of weed, or from drugs stolen from his father’s medical cabinet.

The focus on corporeality is a nod to not only Frankie’s hyper-awareness of the bodies around him – an underlying chemical attraction – but also to the contradiction between hyper-masculinity and homoeroticism. Close-ups of the gleam of a muscled shoulder, or of hands – the instigators of action – maintain a steady absorption with the carnal desires of a young man, while pointing towards an invisible line that exists somewhere between this masculine display and homosexual impulse. Hittman brilliantly drives this home, highlighting the level of male bravado encouraged by a pack of alpha boys, as seen in their physicality, their language and matching buzz cuts, which rubs against Frankie’s unspoken sexuality.

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The inherent sadness of this movie rears itself up in an atmosphere of coldness, of masculinity, damp darkness and the icy space between words. Frankie himself may seem blankly sealed off against the world, obscured further by a cloud of smoke, but underneath bubbles a volcano of emotion. There’s a bristly aggression that belies his frustrated pain – an offshoot of confusion and denial. Dickinson encompasses these nuanced emotions in his glazed, far-off eyes, that so poignantly emote both the pain of the present and the barely indulged dream for the future. Explicit without becoming gratuitous, Beach Rats fabulously articulates the dangers of a hyper-masculine environment, while exploring a sexual-identity experience that exists within the confines of our larger patriarchal society. It takes a man’s perspective and emotively paints the difficulties that are imposed on him both externally and internally.

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