To direct a film is to choose what gets shown, and Eliza Hittman stares this choice in the face with her new film, Beach Rats. Frankie is a taciturn young man moping away a humid summer in Brooklyn. He spends his life between two beaches: one on the boardwalk where he and his friends play ball and prowl for girls, the other a screensaver on the computer he uses to chat with older (often nuder) men on a webcam dating site. He's quick to admit, when pressed, that he doesn't really know what he likes, even after one fling offers to tell him whether or not he's "really gay". This isn't a true dichotomy, of course — external pressures drive him away from the idea of bisexuality — but the act of trying to choose a side becomes one of self-construction rather than self-discovery.
Hittman underscores this by framing male bodies like building blocks, segmented and utilitarian, but the focus is as much on what these parts can do as how they look doing it. It's an unfamiliar but especially welcome way of seeing men presented on screen and the camera doesn't shy away from a single detail. Frankie slides in and out of light and shadow, playing at machismo in the sun for his friends but coyly lurking in the dark of a basement or beneath the brim of a hat in front of male suitors. All of this is at the behest of actor Harris Dickinson, whose name you should note now, better to follow his surely rising stock. There is a distinct sense that he is in complete control of every thought and uncertainty that strikes Frankie and it takes great talent to bring direction to such a purposefully directionless character.
Thanks in large part to the imagery, the film remains thematically strong when the script flags a bit with dramatic clichés. For example, Frankie has recently lost his father to cancer, leading to the sloppy (and very likely unintended) implication that his dalliances with older men may simply be a search for that type of presence. The funeral is treated with an impeccably light hand, but that work is undone when we watch his mother call their answering machine over and over to hear her late husband's voice. For an impossibly contemporary film, one of dirty mirror selfies and vape tricks and sexual fluidity, these notes feel far out of place. Still, as an experience in people-watching it soars. And, anyway, nobody goes to the beach for the stories.
Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup.