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Sundance Breakout Harris Dickinson on Nudity, Sexuality and ‘Beach Rats’

Harris Dickinson makes a shattering film debut in “Beach Rats,” the story of an outer boroughs teen who is haunted by his homosexuality. So convincingly does he play Frankie, a 19-year old Brooklyn tough, that it’s jarring to discover that he’s from London.

It’s a remarkably assured performance for an actor who only has a handful of television and stage appearances to his credit. Dickinson’s work has left critics at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film launched this week, raving. As Frankie, he’s closed off, volatile, and filled with self-loathing. He practically communicates with grunts, and lacks the emotional capacity to deal with his attraction to men. In that stifling atmosphere, the internet becomes an outlet, giving Franke a platform to arrange sexual encounters with people who aren’t closeted. At a time when gay rights has made enormous strides, “Beach Rats,” sensitively directed by Eliza Hittman and set in a dead-end part of New York, reminds viewers that there are still places in the world where some love dares not speak its name.

Dickinson spoke with Variety about transforming himself into a Brooklyn native, Frankie’s sexuality, and getting naked on film.

Had you ever been to Brooklyn?

Never, never. I’d been to New York, but it was very brief.

So then how did you develop the accent?

I don’t know how I managed to be in this movie. I had a general New York accent for the audition tape and they helped me adjust it for the area. I sat in on the auditions. I met a lot of teenagers from Brooklyn. It helped me. I read with them and stayed in accent with them and they didn’t realize I was from London. Hearing it for me was the best way to work on it.

Why did you want to do the film?

From the moment I read the script the battle that Frankie is in really appealed to me. I could feel his bitterness and the way he pushed his emotions deeper inside of him and his toxicity. It’s a lot more interesting to see a character internalize something than verbalize it.

What’s the root of his emotional crisis?

Sexual identity, for sure, is one of the main issues for Frankie. More than sexual identity, is just identity as a whole and coming to terms with that and not fully allowing yourself to comprehend that. He doesn’t even want to deal with his sexuality. He doesn’t even see himself as gay. It’s a big statement to make for him.

Did you think Frankie was gay, bisexual, or did you make a judgment?

I made a judgement. I knew that he was gay, but he hadn’t accepted it in his own head. He was living in an area where it is totally not accepted. He’s got all this pressure of masculinity around him, so I don’t think it was even an option.

In the film, Frankie spends a lot of time flirting with men and arranging hookups with them  through Grindr-like sites. Does the internet provide an outlet for him?

The internet chatting is like a portal into another world. It’s like his safe place, to sit on that computer and chat with those guys. It’s a link. He wouldn’t walk around and talk to these people. He’s meeting all these different people from Bushwick or Fort Greene. People he’d never meet. It’s a glimpse into a world that he’ll never live in. There is hope. There is hope for him with it. It gives him an outlet.

The film has graphic sex scenes and a lot of nudity. Did you have any reservations about that?

Not particularly. I knew it was justified. I’m quite comfortable with my body and quite comfortable with my sexuality, so I think that allowed me to be free in those circumstances, but it was important that I wasn’t too comfortable in those circumstances because that wouldn’t have been what Frankie was feeling.

The film ends on an ambiguous note. Do you think Frankie is ever able to come to grips with his sexuality?

I don’t know. He hints at the idea. He’s always dancing on the line of telling someone or saying something. He’s constantly testing the waters with the topic. Just one little word could change his future.

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