BEACH RATS B
USA (95 mi) 2017 d: Eliza Hittman
Winner of the Best Director Award at Sundance, this film is not nearly as drawn out or as intricately ambitious as the director’s earlier film It Felt Like Love (2013), though it has similarities, following a path of youthful sexual desires gone awry and the internalized wasteland it can lead to, filled with psychological ambiguities, with characters alienated from themselves and others, yet clamoring for love and attention, which they don’t know how to get at their tender young ages, instead pretending to be aloof and disaffected. In many respects this feels more like a sketch than a full-blown effort, an impressionistic mosaic about a confused male identity, where isolated landscapes of a deserted stretch of beach are the setting for anonymous sexual hookups with other guys, filled with a nocturnal void, as things can inevitably go wrong, creating empty spaces that remain unfilled, yet the unmistakable downward spiral is haunting and effective, bordering on suicidal, where it’s clear we are entering this kind of troubling world that effects so many vulnerable kids with anguished and wounded souls. It’s also clear in films like Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By the Lake (L'inconnu du lac) (2013), for instance, that adult gay men face many of these same difficulties, exploring their dangerous impulses, but this film feels more curious about the fleeting moments in the life of a young adolescent prone to making ill-informed decisions. Like her earlier film, the similarities to the filmmaking of Claire Denis are unmistakable, as clearly she and her cinematographer Hélène Louvart have been influenced by Beau Travail (1999), where men’s bodies, naked from the waist up, are conscientiously gazed upon with probing eyes. In this case, a gang of four teenage guys from Brooklyn, including Jesse (Anton Selyaninov), Nick (Frank Hakaj), and Alexei (David Ivanov, three non-professionals recruited from the South Brooklyn neighborhood), hang out along the boardwalk of Coney Island, really for no other reason than they have nothing better to do, where their dead-end lives living at home with their parents feel stiflingly claustrophobic, already alienated from family members and society at large. Following a single boy, Frankie (British newcomer Harris Dickson), a buff young kid who likes to look at himself in the mirror striking various poses, he has little sympathy for his younger sister Carla (Nicole Flyus), while his mother (Kate Hodge) is consumed by her husband in the living room withering away from cancer, attending to him along with a hospice nurse. Caught off-guard by the circumstances, this seems to prevent Frankie from finding his bearings, as he pretty much avoids his family altogether, hanging out in the basement scoping gay web cam chat sites, eyeing up older guys that interest him, but mostly he seems to like being noticed by them.
What his Brooklyn gang has in common is an interest in getting high, even visiting a vape shop, competing for best smoke rings, then wandering the streets interacting with whoever they encounter, acting like goofballs, returning home late where they fall into bed completely wasted. While watching the fireworks at Coney Island, he happens to meet a cute young girl, Simone (Madeline Weinstein), who finds him attractive, bringing her back home where he snorts some coke and has difficulty getting aroused, treating her crudely where she’s forced to make an angry and awkward exit. Acting like it means nothing, his sexual curiosity leans towards finding other men, a practice he keeps secret from everyone else, even becoming a young hustler who waits for pick-ups near the beach. His attraction to cruising however is countered by his social need to hang out with the boys, hell-bent on getting high, even returning to Simone and apologizing, confessing a certain confusion by what’s happening with his Dad, where she gives him a second chance. While some may be more intrigued by the graphic gay sex scenes, rarely filmed by a woman, by the way, but the montage of scenes with Frankie and Simone basically having fun doing stupid things together at a street carnival are actually more impressive, especially the lighting and color schemes, shot on 16mm, emphasizing the director’s attraction to surface qualities, where she seems to get everything right, abandoning plotline altogether for a more abstract, free-flowing glimpse of kids being happy, where it doesn’t take much, mostly it’s just sharing a common mood, where the film excels with a spacious and sophisticated electronic soundtrack by Nicholas Leone, feeling dreamy and atmospheric, setting the tone where the most powerful scenes in the film are wordlessly poetic. Despite his tendencies, regularly having sex with men, which is easier for him than sex with women, where he apparently presents a façade of masculinity, Frankie never acknowledges that he’s gay, as if it’s something he’s still figuring out. This, in essence, is the heart of the problem, as everything explored in the film springs from this personal deception. When he and Simone and the boys go on a pleasure boat cruise, popping pills ahead of time, Frankie gets lost in his fractured identity, growing more unsure of himself and completely thrown off his game when the bartender turns out to be one of his earlier affairs, where it seems like he has to escape from himself, where the disco vibe is loud and oppressive, though accurately shown, as it accentuates luridly sexy females on the dance floor, where he’s off on another wavelength, soon having an emotional breakdown, eventually abandoning Simone altogether, escaping alone into the darkened night, retreating back to the beach and the midnight prowlers, getting his sex off anonymously.
Simone dumps him afterwards, claiming he’s more of a reclamation project than a boyfriend. Following the death of his father, however, Frankie’s trajectory is a downward spiral, as drugs don’t come so easy and his mother is annoyed by his nocturnal habits, coming home late in who knows what state, setting a terrible example for his sister, who can’t get away with any of his nonsense, spending his life getting wasted. While his mother tries to get under his skin, asking what’s going on, offering the kind of help only mothers can provide, Frankie can’t handle it, as he doesn’t want anyone delving into his private business, unable to share any of the salacious details of a life of promiscuity, basically having sex only with strangers, where using a condom is not something that enters this guy’s head. While the film is not really about coming out, as Frankie remains closeted, the effects this has on him are startling, easily irritated, growing moody and easily disturbed, with Frankie finding it harder to hang with the boys, where the effects of having absolutely nothing to do becomes a weight they all carry, turning to him for drugs, as they always have, with pathetic results. This group dynamic changes when Frankie becomes so desperate for companionship that he mentions cruising gay sex sites to his buddies, claiming his only interest is getting high. While they find this incredulous and crack homophobic jokes, they agree to set up a plan to meet a guy with the sole intention of taking his drugs. When this initially fails, with the guy taking off after seeing four guys hanging out, Frankie contacts him again, claiming he’ll be alone, where the plan is to have the others lying in wait. This flips the script, as Frankie has been lurking in dangerous waters, subject to possible shark attacks, but now he’s become a dangerous sexual predator that preys on others, where a pervasive mood of dread haunts the picture, suddenly injected with horror themes. Bad things happen, leaving his head spinning afterwards, though he’s largely to blame, but like everything else, this is something he hasn’t figured out yet, wandering alone, out of sorts, revisiting familiar places, but exiled, cut off from the rest of the world, remaining a stranger in a strange world. Much like Hittman’s earlier film was about the dangers of female sexuality, putting herself in situations before she was ready, with ghastly results, this eye opening film is a cautionary tale for young gay men, who clearly need to come to terms with their own sexual identity or face disastrous consequences, from suicidal inclinations to deviant behavior where they could end up behind bars. Some of the best insight into the film is expressed by Steve Erickson from The Nashville Scene, With Beach Rats, Eliza Hittman Becomes a Major New Voice, suggesting “Beach Rats is the best demonstration of the dangers of the closet since Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.”
There is some controversy about the film because it so closely details the murder of Michael Sandy, a black gay man lured to a Brooklyn beach in 2006, presumably to have sex with a contact he met online, but instead he was met by four attackers who dragged him from his car, with one of the attackers chasing him onto a busy highway, pushing him into the path of an oncoming car that killed him. Frankie’s character resembles that of Anthony Fortunato, aged 20, allegedly the mastermind behind the crime, who allegedly had a girlfriend and had pulled this kind of stunt before, where the men claimed they were after Sandy’s marijuana, but beat him because he was gay. Three of the four attackers were later convicted of gay-bashing hate crimes. During the trial, Fortunato confessed to being gay, begging the question, can a gay man commit a hate crime against another gay man? The answer is yes, because Sandy was chosen specifically because of his sexual orientation. The murder resembles an earlier racial incident that occurred at Howard Beach in 1986 when a car carrying four black men broke down on the roadway, forcing one to remain in the car while three walked several miles for help in Howard Beach, a mostly all-white neighborhood, where they were confronted by a group of white teens hurling racial slurs. One of the three blacks escaped, while the other two were badly beaten, with one, Michael Griffith, chased out onto the highway where he was killed by an oncoming car. Nine people were ultimately convicted on a variety of charges related to Griffith’s death.
In Hittman’s film, there is no black victim, as all the participants are white, yet the names of the characters are identical to those killing Sandy, where she received permission from the State of New York to film at the exact same setting as the murder, though what happens to him remains ambiguous, as the film never reveals an outcome. Despite repeated questioning, Hittman has refused to credit or even acknowledge the Sandy murder as an influence in her film, instead claiming her film represents the mindset of plenty of homophobic guys she grew up with, having gone to school at Edward R. Murrow High School in South Brooklyn. In a written statement to Gay City News, a LGBT-serving New York City publication, Ms. Hittman wrote:
As a Brooklyn native, I’m aware of the Anthony Fortunato story as well as numerous other cases of intolerance and injustice towards the gay community. I did not set out to make a biopic or tell anyone’s personal story. Like my other films, ‘Beach Rats’ explores the fragility and danger of teenage sexuality. And it’s intended as a poetic exploration of the pressures of masculinity and an identity crisis as a catalyst for violence, which is unfortunately all too common. Growing up in Brooklyn, I’ve witnessed first-hand instances of homophobia in my own upbringing and community, all of which influenced the writing of this story.