As an older man is slowly dying of cancer from a lifetime of smoking, his son is slowly dying of another, more metaphorical type of cancer — a lifetime of lying and shame. Both deaths are equally suicidal, thus equally condemned by their Catholic religion, but the young man’s death from raw, corrosive self-hatred is all the more horrific. If there were ever truth to the 1980s AIDS-era maxim that Silence = Death, then Frankie’s halting retreat into mute isolation about who he is at his very core leads to an invidious and insidious rot from within, greater than any suffering that might come from a rampant malignancy.
His cancer is himself.
In Beach Rats, written and directed by Eliza Hittman, the plot is absolutely minimal. Not much happens. Simply put, a group of aimless, desultory Brooklyn boys wander the borough’s back alleys and Coney Island’s cheap thrills looking for weed, drugs, and sex. Macho posturing, ad hoc handball games, vaping bars, and shirtless selfie-posing while lifting weights are the order of the day. No more, no less.
Except for Frankie (British newcomer Harris Dickinson), for whom everything, and nothing, happens.
What we have here instead of plot is a lyrically photographed, poetically realized, moody and atmospheric film that explores Frankie’s internal battles — and they are ferocious and unrelenting — with his same-sex attractions. Hélène Louvart is the cinematographer, and she is a master of light and mood, filming in gritty, grainy 16mm that shows the stunning beauty of water, night, neon, darkness, shadow, hair, sunlight, smoke, skin, sweat, eroticizing even the very air the boys breathe. Pounding and bursting fireworks — that cliched filmic expression of explosive heteronormative sex — become in this movie a reminder for both Frankie and the viewer how far removed he is from anything he might consider normal. Even as he swaggers with the bros during the day, he cruises the gay chatrooms to meet older men by night, his face half-hidden by his baseball cap, his identity obscured by shadow. Once the online hookup is arranged, the computer screensaver reverts to images of detonating fireworks filling the sky.
The narrative is negligible, the words scarce and scant. Who needs words when you have pecs, nips, biceps, abs, tats, mouths, tongues, ass, pubes, and the ever-present, ever-ready dick. It is the objectification and voyeurism we associate with the male gaze in cinema, but now it’s Frankie looking at available men while denying, to his death, that he’s one of them. It’s the familiar, time-worn cognitive dissonance of a man who has sex with men while at the same time repudiating who he is at the center of his existence. As he mumbles to the men who try to suss out just what this boy/man wants, “I’m not sure what I like.” It’s the claustrophobia of the closet when every question, every suggestion, every move he makes might reveal what he’s kept so tightly hidden for so long. He will never share this reality with his widowed mother (Kate Hodge), 8th grade sister (Nicole Flyus) or his friends (Eric Potempa, Anton Selyaninov, Frank Hakaj). And Frankie struggles to connect with a girlfriend Simone (Madeline Weinstein) whom he genuinely seems fond of, but his life as a lie will forever prohibit any marriage of true minds here. The impediments are enormous.
Maybe the film falls apart in the third act. It is, after all, plotless, and atmosphere can only carry you so far. The ending is ambiguous and ambivalent — and not without controversy in the gay community — as Frankie's misguided and malicious behavior, with all sorts of unintended consequences, is indefensible and unpardonable. His own self-hatred leads to the worst kind of homophobia. But we ache for Frankie. We ache for his inchoate and unexpressed longings. We want him to get new friends, go in a new direction, find some purpose for his life; we want him in an addiction program, to find a Brooklyn chapter of GLADD or GLSEN, we want him to get an education, maybe even a course in gay history, leave Brooklyn and explore Manhattan; we want him to talk, we want him to be naked emotionally as well as physically. We especially want him to say This is who I am.
But even without that uplift, this is a exceptionally bold film that reveals without words the cancer of denial and repression.