Frankie, the oh-so-beautiful, oh-so-confused teenage protagonist of “Beach Rats,” isn’t much for answering questions. “I don’t know what I like,” he says curtly, if not dishonestly, to the various older men, sought in gay chat rooms, who want to know if they turn him on. And when a hesitantly acquired girlfriend asks him, twice, if he finds her pretty, he pointedly refuses to answer, bouncing the question back at her in a tone that’s both taunting and searching. Writer-director Eliza Hittman has a sensitive ear for the way adolescents reveal themselves through evasion: It’s a tension crucial to this anxious, tactile, profoundly sad study of a young man’s journey of sexual self-discovery and self-betrayal on the luridly faded boardwalks of Brooklyn.
Fully delivering on the promise of her rough-diamond debut “It Felt Like Love,” Hittman’s sophomore feature is unlikely to match the arthouse exposure of “Moonlight,” which it would nonetheless handsomely complement on a double bill dedicated to inchoate gay identity in the social margins. As with “Moonlight,” viewers might detect a certain European composure to its depiction of very American terrain — there are formal and tonal echoes here of auteurs ranging from Claire Denis to early Lynne Ramsay — though “Beach Rats” is more serrated than Barry Jenkins’ film in its visual style and editing rhythms. Frenchwoman Hélène Louvart, most celebrated for her documentary work with Wim Wenders (“Pina”) and Agnes Varda (“The Beaches of Agnes”), is an inspired choice of d.p. here, shooting predominantly in gorgeously grainy, low-lit 16mm. It’s not merely a fashionably distressed aesthetic choice, but one that enhances the film’s vividly dilapidated sense of place: As in her debut, Hittman shoots in and around the neglected streets, amusement arcades and beaches of far Brooklyn and Staten Island, an urban playground now left out of time.
Yet for 19-year-old Frankie (Harris Dickinson, a head-turning Brit making his feature debut), such crumbling pleasure palaces provide what little pleasure he’s known. “Why would we go all the way to the city when there’s plenty of good places here?” he incredulously asks the skeptical Simone (Madeline Weinstein) at the outset of their hesitant first date. Thus is the tiny perimeter of his world described: Jobless, carless, and out of school, Frankie’s whiling away the summer lifting weights, smoking weed, and aimlessly hanging out with fellow jocks whom he repeatedly, only half-jokingly insists aren’t his friends. It’s not the most stimulating social life, but it beats home, where his cancer-ridden dad is living out his last days in palliative care; his loving but emotionally depleted mother (an excellent Kate Hodge) barely has the energy to raise an eyebrow at the drugs and girls he brings home with scant concealment.
It’s a life that offers precious little in the way of the unknown, save for one new avenue of exploration: anonymous cruising on online gay chat rooms, where older men are only too eager to broaden the sculpted, rose-skinned young blonde’s horizons. Games of show-me-yours from the safe distance of a computer screen soon progress to discreet meets on the not-so-romantic sands of Brooklyn, as Frankie struggles to work out what exactly this fixation says about him — the answer never seeming so simple from within the closet as it does to those outside.
While teenage coming-out stories are thankfully no rarity in today’s independent cinema, it’s still unusual for one to pin a character’s arc so explicitly to direct sexual exploration as opposed to any suggestion of romantic interest — perhaps the only course available to a young man whose regular social life appears bereft even of incidental LGBT contact. Does Frankie court older men to forestall greater attraction on his part? Does he subscribe to outdated chat-room models, as opposed to the youth-oriented immediacy of apps like Grindr, out of denial or simple ignorance? Would downloading gay porn be a step too far in admitting his desires to himself? “Beach Rats” leaves such questions carefully open as it thoughtfully negotiates the maelstrom of clashing conditions and uncertainties in its protagonist’s psyche — culminating, in one breathtaking, tightly sewn sequence, in a misguided attempt to rationalize his bi-curiosity to his pals, with horrifying consequences.
This is achingly delicate psychological territory, heavily dependent on just the right actor to make flesh its scripted subtleties — and Hittman has found him in Dickinson, whose perfectly lazy outer NYC drawl and hunched dudebro swagger banish all thoughts of his London drama-school pedigree. His Frankie is at once maddeningly impenetrable and desperately vulnerable, snarling some responses and mumbling others as if in apology for his very existence; it’s a performance that nails typical teenage switchbacks and insecurities with an active, unshakable terror over who he might turn out to be. This is an ideally cast movie down the line — Weinstein, too, deserves applause for her deft, well-salted turn as Frankie’s more-perceptive-than-she-seems girlfriend. But it’s Dickinson whose face you take away from the film, his features arranged into a extraordinary, elusive puzzle, whether garishly tinted with shoreside fireworks or shaded by a hoodie in his online exploits. Hittman and Louvart don’t gaze upon it too lavishly, however, forever shooting that face at angles and in shadows that keep something hidden. “Do you think I’m pretty?” he asks. Even in mockery, it’s the question of a man who can’t, or won’t, see himself.