Beach Rats: Out of the Sun, by David Bax
Nothing about Frankie (Harris Dickinson) and his friends makes them seem like they’d be fun to hang out with. They’re the kind of hyper-bro, toxically masculine, swaggering wastrels who wear tank tops if they wear shirts at all and whose interest in the world extends no further than the ends of their dicks. They hang out in a vape bar where they enthusiastically engage in what can only be described as vape battles, trying to one-up each other by blowing the most rings or whatever. Except, that is, when they’re bummed out and drowning their tears in e-juice; I have to say, “sad vaping” is high on my list of unexpectedly hilarious images. But luckily, there’s another layer of depth to Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats; Frankie is a closeted gay man. It’s a good hook, even if it’s not always enough to be worth spending time with his banal cohorts.
Frankie is in his early twenties and lives at home with his mother (Kate Hodge), his little sister (Nicole Flyus) and his father (Neal Huff), who is dying of cancer and spends his time mostly unresponsive on a hospital bed in the living room. Frankie alternates between spending his evenings prowling the Coney Island boardwalk with his pals and arranging rendezvous with strange men on a hookup site. Just as he meets a girl/potential beard in Simone (Madeline Weinstein), he begins to test the boundaries of what his friends will accept.
This duality is, of course, central to the nature of Frankie’s life. Hittman reflects it in other ways, as well. When presenting himself online, Frankie always seeks to obscure his face, either by pulling low the brim of his cap or anonymizing himself with the flash of his camera. But which reflects his true self more, the shadow or the light?
Hittman grounds Frankie’s struggles in tangible, quotidian verisimilitude. She has an expert feel for domestic vagaries. A scene set at a funeral, for example, is less sturm und drang and more people rustling softly in uncomfortable clothes.
Beach Rats suffers from a surprising problem, though. In short, we’ve seen most of this before. Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that a film can no longer get by solely on the turmoil of a character remaining closeted now that it’s become a stock storyline even for safe primetime television soap operas like Nashville. It needs to be more personal, more unique.
In places, especially near the end, Hittman does locate that more distinctive take on the subject. It may be nothing new to say that macho male friendships are pervasively homoerotic but the dynamic is strikingly depicted here without hanging a lantern on it. The boys put their arms around each other as they stroll, cheer each other on at feats of strength in the midway and strip to their underwear to jump into the ocean together. Yet there’s a constant threat of violence, as there tends to be with guys like these. In Beach Rats, that threat is heightened by the psychic form of violence Frankie is visiting upon himself. It’s bound to burst out sooner or later and there’s no telling who else is going to get hurt.