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Beach Rats review
The troubled and listless life of a South Brooklyn teen.

Review by John Bennett

Directed by: Eliza Hittman

Starring: Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Neal Huff

beach rats uk dvd

In 1953, Ray Ashley, Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel released Little Fugitive, a film made completely independently of Hollywood hegemony. The film followed a young boy as he explored Coney Island after running away from home, finely capturing the unique flavor of South Brooklyn. In representing the special atmosphere of the southern tip of the New York borough as seen through the eyes of a youth, Eliza Hittman gives us the 21st century's correlative to Little Fugitive with Beach Rats, her second feature after 2013's It Felt Like Love. With Beach Rats, Hittman manages to quietly weave themes of addiction, peer pressure, poverty, family strife, locale and - most importantly - sexuality into one deeply engaging indie film.

Beach Rats review

Beach Rats revolves around Frankie (played by Harris Dickinson, who gives a striking performance in his feature film debut), a teenager who leads an idle existence. On summer nights, he hangs out with his ne'er-do-well friends as they drink, pick pockets, pop pills, and scrounge for weed all over South Brooklyn, whose night sky is often illuminated by the neon colours of beach fireworks or the flashing lights of nightclubs. At home, Frankie’s father is slowly dying of cancer, and the teen maintains somewhat contentious relationships with his tired working mother (Kate Hodge) and his precocious younger sister (Nicole Flyus). When away from friends and family in the privacy of his room, Frankie cruises adult chatrooms, slipping out of the house to have sexual encounters with older men. In addition to these encounters, he also explores his sexuality with Simone (Madeline Weinstein), a girl his age with whom he seems to be testing the waters of a heterosexual romance.

Hittman, who both wrote and directed the film, adroitly crafts Beach Rats as a film of tones and atmosphere, forgoing a plot-driven structure that wouldn't have served the material nearly as well. Frankie's father's illness is never over-explained. Instead, the viewer gets one or two fleeting glimpses of the dying man, whose spectral presence subtly underscores the family's general financial and health problems. Similarly, Hittman presents Frankie's addiction to opioids in a naturalistic way that eschews the potential dramatic histrionics of overdose or withdrawal. The same goes for the petty criminal activities that Frankie and his friends aimlessly commit. In one sequence that brings to mind the best moments of Bresson's Pickpocket (1959), one friend quietly steals a wallet from an unsuspecting man waiting in front of the friends in line for a ride. They pass the wallet down the line to Frankie, who empties it of all its cash, before they pass it back up the line and sneak it back into the man's pocket. Again, there is no dramatic confrontation - just a small moment that evokes the petty criminality that hangs around the friends like a cloud of dust. These moments, all realistically suggestive rather than expository, finely represent this unique milieu, whether under the coloured lights of nightclubs and vape lounges, in the blazing summer sun, or in the sad darkness of empty streets and rooms.

Beach Rats review

If Beach Rats is full of quiet moments, then it's the film's sex scenes that constitute the brunt of the film's dramatic action. In its depiction of a youth embarking on risky self-directed sexual adventures, Beach Rats strongly resembles François Ozon's Young & Beautiful (2013), in which a beautiful adolescent (Marine Vacth) decides, for no apparent reason, to work as a prostitute. Vacth and Dickinson bare a strong physical resemblance to one another, a similarity that speaks to the androgynous magnetism both actors exhibit on screen. Yet where Ozon is at times overly trenchant with his heroine's sexual activity (even if Vacth plays the character with Deneuve-level detachment), Hittmann steps back, allowing us to witness Frankie's sexual experiences in a very factual way without forcing us to view these moments through lenses of judgement, fetishisation, or any other kind of meta-commentary. As a result, these sequences, whose graphic contents objectively create a certain amount of unease in the viewer, slowly and naturally build to an ending that's both tragic and ambiguous; Frankie's unsure attempts to communicate the complex facets of his sexuality to both his friends and a date leads inexorably to a moment of violence. Yet even during this climactic moment, Hittman manages to keep a distance as she succinctly merges her film's themes into one simple moment of confused anguish for the film's hero. Through her objective sense of distance, Hittman allows Frankie's sexuality to become the catalyst for a quiet, human tragedy.

In general, Hittman thoughtfully blends the work of her collaborators. Dickinson's probing gazes suggest a rich and confused interiority that gives Beach Rats much of its narrative drive. Nicholas Leone's unobtrusive score has a similar sad lilt as Jean Constantin's music for Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). Cinematographer Hélène Louvart expertly teases out the neon colours of beach fireworks and boardwalk amusements, while also showing as a visual counterpoint just how dark cities and beaches can be at night as the titular beach rats nefariously and listlessly wander between dunes and in and out of small, old city houses.

Beach Rats review

If Beach Rats is flawed, it's flawed in a good way: it feels slightly incomplete. Frankie is such a compelling character in the middle of such a compelling urban environment that we're left wanting more by the time the credits roll. But this is a good problem for a film to have; it speaks to the sad, dangerous fascination that Beach Rats is consistently able to generate.

Beach Rats is on MUBI UK now.