Hunched Bodies, Fragile Selves – Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats
“I don’t really know what I like,” Frankie tells the gay men he spends his summer nights video chatting with. A Brooklyn boy in his teens, he lives a double life: acting tough with his bros by day, watching older men undress and masturbate on video by night.
Four years after her immersive directorial feature debut, It Felt Like Love, writer-director Eliza Hittman returns with a haunting coming of age story, in which a teenager comes to terms with his sexuality.
Premiered at Sundance, where Hittman received the Directing Award, Beach Rats was screened in Locarno as part of the Swiss festival’s Cineasti del Presente program, which showcases first and second features by emerging directors from around the world.
Echoing another big title in the recent LGBT cinema, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, at the heart of Hittman’s sophomore feature lies an irresolvable tension: the wish to express and pursue one’s sexual desires and the impossibility to do so in a society that chastises whatever falls outside the heteronormative spectrum.
Hittman has a sensible eye to the way sexuality implies certain behavioral codes that must be strictly observed, lest one is to turn into a social outcast.
In his daytime persona, Frankie looks and acts as a typical bro, flexing his muscles, acting cool with his male friends and flirting clumsily with girls only to be completely at loss when they undress before him. The world he inhabits leaves no room for his inner fragile self, which can only manifest itself during his late-night video exploits and the Coney Island strolls in the company of much older men.
Hittman understands this struggle in a way that is both observant and compassionate. Adolescents often reveal themselves through evasive questions and comments rather than explicit confessions. There are moments in Beach Rats when Frankie seems to test his acquaintances as if to see how they would react if he were to tell them the truth about his late-night self. He asks a girl he dates, Simone, (Madeline Weinstein) if she thinks two boys kissing is a hot thing to look at, and mocks her recurring question (“do you think I look pretty?”) by posing with her bra and bouncing the question back at her, with a tone that is at once searching and elusive.
But the persona Frankie becomes at night is not any more real than his daytime self. During a late-night motel room rendezvous, Frankie tells his date he has a girlfriend, and when men start to undress before him during video chats he cannot help but cover his eyes – only to watch them through his fingers. In some fundamental sense, Frankie walks clumsily both in his gay and straight-acting selves. His fixation with other people’s bodies seems to obey both to a sexual desire and to a certain sense of envy – as if he realized the ease with which other people carried themselves was something that would always remain beyond his grasp.
Hittman follows Frankie’s gaze trying to mirror this sense of awkward attraction, and often resorts to close-ups that focus on individual body parts. But the bodies Frank interacts with are never exposed. Hittman’s camera does not give in to voyeurism, and instead portrays bodies as fragile, with a sense of compassion that makes even the most brutal interactions profoundly sad and heart-wrecking encounters.
Harris Dickinson delivers a memorable performance as Frankie. If the teenage boy’s psyche feels so multifaceted this is very much thanks to the Londoner newcomer, whose expressions and gestures capture Frankie’s constant shifts between a public bro swagger and an achingly fragile inner self. “You have soft lips,” Simone tells him, “and sad blue eyes.” And there could be no better description. His angel-like face wears a certain sadness that hints to an unresolved conflict that could never be made public, because no public could understand it.