Summer days drift on, and Frankie bums around his Brooklyn neighborhood, traipsing the beach with his squad of dumb goons, walking the Coney Island boardwalk, engaging with a girl who makes suggestive eyes at him. At night, he’s on a gay Brooklyn chatroom, clicking from cam to cam and scrolling past bare torsos until he finds a guy who will say hi. When he talks, his face is mostly dark; his cap obscures his eyes. Barely seen, faintly heard. We don’t know when he discovered this chat site; these could be his first attempts to connect with anyone online. Soon he’s leaving the safety of his computer screen for a beach-side or motel room hook-up.
The actor that commands Beach Rats, Harris Dickinson (in a heartbreakingly honest performance), is twenty. Frankie might be the same age, and with no job or school anchoring him, he’s essentially aimless. He lives at home with his mother and sister, where the family prepares to say goodbye to his dying father. Frankie doesn’t express much grief about his father, doesn’t open up to his mom or his friends. At an age when most teenagers are ready for adulthood, Frankie’s ambitions have been held back.
Dickinson is physically beautiful, and you sense Frankie knows it, his chiseled abs and tight physique frequently on display. But every time he nudges the closet door a little more open, we can read all his fears and anxieties on his minimally expressive face. In one extreme bout of self-loathing, he invites his team of droogs to watch him cam, but pretends he only chats with gay guys for weed. Later, when his friends ambush his hook-up, and things turn violent, Dickinson is wracked with guilt and self-disgust, realizing what he’s done but paralyzed to help.
Eliza Hittman, the director and screenwriter, is a woman to watch. Beach Rats can be static in some scenes, but that’s the mood of Frankie’s summer, those months when his curiosity leads him down a road he might not return from. Hittman has made a bittersweet look at a young man struggling to find himself, and also a searing takedown of the cult of toxic masculinity. She’s also written two provocative roles for Frankie’s mother (Kate Hodge) and girlfriend by day (Madeline Weinstein), both excellent.
The camera observes Frankie’s neighborhood in all of its grimness. The stultifying streets mix with the glitter of Coney Island and the churn of waves serenely lapping against the beach, where fears and desires come out to play.