Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Beach Rats (2017)

Film: Beach Rats (2017)
Stars: Harris Dickinson, Kate Hodge, Madeline Weinstein
Director: Eliza Hittman
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

It's not often, but sometimes a movie after I see it flummoxes me, and I'm not exactly sure whether or not what I saw onscreen was really strong, or that I had a visceral, jarring reaction to it for another reason.  About once a year this happens, with films like The Counselor or Compliance where I cannot tell whether the strong reaction I'm having to the picture is one of anger over what I just saw or whether it was a strong reaction because the film was so effective.  This was my initial reaction to Beach Rats, an arthouse picture I caught on a whim this past weekend, and I figured I'd sort through those feelings in a review.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film starts out with a relatively routine story, at least for gay films.  Frankie (Dickinson, who does a marvelous South Brooklyn accent for someone raised in East London), is a young man of about 19 who spends most of his nights roaming the shores of Coney Island and snorting up painkillers that he steals from his terminally-ill father, except when he's prowling a gay sex app trying to find older men to have random hookups with in the bushes.  He is deeply in the closet, perhaps to the point where he's still in denial about his sexuality to himself, but is largely distant from everyone in his world.  The movie itself unfolds along what you assume will be familiar beats-his friends are largely wordless but clearly heterosexual men who have no real motivation in their lives, and Frankie has a beautiful but tough girlfriend named Simone (Weinstein) whom he tries to prove his masculinity through, but finds of course that he can't.  All-the-while, he is spiraling out of control in terms of his drug use and his increasingly frequent sex with strangers, culminating in him eventually going too far with one of these strangers, ending in his friends beating the man to steal his marijuana.

The film is very, very assured in the way that it handles Frankie's story, sometimes to the point where it may leave too many questions unanswered.  The movie's ending is abrupt (the guy sitting behind me said "what a joke" out loud after seeing it), as Frankie, after tricking one of the guys he seduces into a trap, is seen just staring at the Coney Island fireworks, with no indication of how he feels about the man, his seemingly doomed life, or even what the fate of the man is (we last leave him being punched in the stomach on the beach, so we don't know if he escaped or even if he lives through the encounter).  There are so many questions (I still want to know what was up with the shorter friend who rarely talked, refused to swim in his underwear with the others, and then refused to jump the gay man with the other guys-was he also in the closet?), and so little known about the young man we've spent two hours with that it almost borders on too thin of a script.  Film can work as a medium that doesn't need to heavily rely upon story, but you need perspective, and sometimes I worry that Hittmann doesn't share enough of what she thinks happens to Frankie after the screen falls.

That being said, there's clearly something special happening here, in a way that reminded me a lot of the dangerous sexuality of Stranger by the Lake.  A lot of the film's best attributes are a result of Dickinson's very subdued performance.  Sometimes actors play characters in a laid-back way to make you understand them through the story, but the way that Dickinson approaches him is something entirely different-he may just be hollow after years of self-hatred and impeding doom.  This is a man who lives in a community that simply won't accept him for his sexuality, that doesn't see any other options that don't exist in his drug-laden world, and has no real connections to other human beings.  He barely speaks to his family, his relationship with his girlfriend is a charade and largely based on them posing as a couple rather than being intimate with each other, and his friends he regularly refers to as "not my friends."  The men that he hooks up with are older, and seem more interested in the jackpot they scored of a man plucked straight out of a Calvin Klein ad wanting to have sex with them (Dickinson looks like a supermodel) than in knowing virtually anything about him.  The only moment in the film that doesn't feel like someone exploiting Frankie or going-through-the-motions is the car ride he takes with the young man whom his friends eventually jump.  He's age appropriate for Frankie, and seems genuinely interested in getting to know him, which is terrifying for Frankie.  Frankie doesn't know how to handle this, and rather than stopping the attack (he knows by the time he gets out of the car that he actually likes this person, perhaps to the point where he might want to see him again), he just goes back to being a passive outsider in his life, doing what is easiest.

This idea that Frankie just exists, rather than lives, makes the ending hard to watch but perhaps the best moment.  We could have had some confirmation from him that he felt remorse over what happened, or that he would come out to his mother or friends, but that doesn't happen.  He just continues, floating through his world without any real anchor in it.  You get the sense from Hittmann at this point that Frankie will never get a happy ending, that whether his life will end through drugs or crime or a hookup gone bad, this was his opportunity and he blew it, never to return.  It's a damaging, hard to realize ending, but it makes the movie's ambiguity easier to take.  Resolution is easy, but truth is hard, and there are a lot of Frankie's who haven't been allowed into a more open society yet, and as a result will be forever scarred and unable to break free.

All-in-all, I have to say, after writing the review, I really liked the movie even if it's a very hard movie to love.  None of these characters are ones you find you want to root for, even if Dickinson's unfathomable beauty would still force you to swipe right, but it's a very real picture.  The center of it is hard to take, and I would have liked a little more insight into Frankie or at least his batch of friends, but by-and-large this is an effective movie with a strong central performance.

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