any innocent who comes near it; Besson’s Subway (1985) watches as a small-time criminal takes to the underground world of the Paris Métro to evade capture and builds a life there.
Certainly, Beach Rats does not have one foot in cinematic fantasy akin to the above mentioned films – they accentuate thriller storylines in a naturalistic setting while the film in question is simply naturalistic. But comparative in Hittman’s work is how it lines up with cinéma du look’s tendency to visually romanticize the everyday; how it so easily demonstrates that even the most mundane moments in one’s life can appear poetic when framed just right.
Beach Rats tells the story of Frankie (Harris Dickinson, stunning), a muscular, jocky 19-year-old Brooklyn native living his post-grad life at home and on the streets. His mother’s (Kate Hodge) perpetually on edge, his sister’s (Nicole Flyus) on the verge of coming of age, and his father lies terminally ill in bed with cancer. Income comes from drug dealing on the DL, and days and nights are spent with his meathead buddies. Sometimes a girl’s brought home after a particularly memorable night of troublemaking.
But Frankie’s coming into his own is underlined in inner turmoil. What his family, friends, and girlfriend (Madeline Weinstein) don’t know, and what he refuses to acknowledge, is that he’s homosexual. When not clowning around and when not both dealing and doing, he’s lurking about gay chat rooms, sometimes even meeting up with older men for late-night hookups in the bushes alongside his city’s shores.
In his world, the words “gay,” let alone “bisexual,” do not exist – all close to him are inherently homophobic, and as such is he unwilling to explore his sexuality in a fashion that isn’t shrouded in secrecy. And this feeling of never being able to have what you really want, combined with sensual 16mm visuals courtesy of cinematographer Hélène Louvart, thus makes Beach Rats an evocative tale of longing, and how the sensation can at once be devastating and erotic in its own peculiar ways.
Hittman’s affinity for silence and emotional ambiguity can sometimes make the movie feel perhaps too understated. The lacking of dialogue suggests that she’s a self-conscious screenwriter rather than a filmmaker distinctly aware of how effective quiet can be when it’s weaponized. But the film is nonetheless a work of extraordinary humanistic beauty, sensorily exhilarating in such a way that recalls the films of Derek Cianfrance or the Dardenne brothers.
Rather than make use of artificial visual tricks to make the material appear more expressive, Hittman emphasizes the oft-admired optical splendours of the everyday: the sun beating against the honeyed thighs of bikini clad young women; the aesthetic highs provided by the tanned, poreless skin of young men; impressively toned bodies; supple, wetted lips; neon flickering against the quiet of the evening; smoke rings swirling about in a crowded room; the flash of a camera interrupting a pitch-black night.
Though Louvart’s camera especially underscores youthful bodies and material pleasures, neither she nor Hittman ever objectify. They admire and tastefully regard, and do so in a way that essentially marks a reversal of the piggish male gaze and turns it into something more appreciative.
These aesthetic amusements only intensify the situation, exaggerating Frankie’s youth and how much more carefree it could be if he didn’t feel so trapped. But the feature also rhapsodizes a commonly experienced, bittersweet situation, and is sensitive and empathetic toward the plight of its lead. Dickinson, as physically beautiful as he is able to convey angst through facial movements and body twitches alone, strengthens this.
Beach Rats ends unresolved – Frankie’s still nowhere closer to accepting his sexual identity than when we first met him – but we get the sense that his acceptance of himself will come about at some point. The film’s just capturing this particularly lonely time and finding the lyricism within it. One hopes things will look up. B+
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
Beach Rats January 8, 2018
liza Hittman’s second feature film, 2017’s Beach Rats, has much in common with the works that defined the cinéma du look movement. A filmmaking faction popularized in France in the 1980s, its defining pieces, mostly directed by style-minded iconoclasts from Luc Besson to Leos Carax to Jean-Jacques Beineix, principally spotlighted the ennui-drenched lives of young and adrift characters against a slickened backdrop of incidental glamor and intrigue. Beineix’s Diva (1981) saw a lanky, poverty-stricken fuck-up accidentally coming into the possession of an audio tape that could spell out life or death for himself or
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.