With Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country and Beach Rats, 2017 may have been strongest year ever for gay-themed films at the Sundance Film Festival. The last of those, Beach Rats, took the Best Director (Dramatic) Award for director Eliza HIttman, and it’s also just been nominated for a couple of Independent Spirit Awards. The result is that it arrives in UK cinemas with quite a reputation. But does it deserve it?
The short answer is – yes.
It’s summer and Brooklyn teenager Frankie (Harris Dickinson) has nothing to do but hang out with his friends, heading down to the beach to flirt with girls, play ball and try to pass the time. However, away from his somewhat delinquent mates, he’s started going online and looking for guys. Initially he’s uncertain about what he’s doing or whether it means anything beyond being a way to pass the time, but he soon starts meeting men for sex.
This part of his life is completely removed from the rest of his existence. His family is poor and he and his friends find it difficult to imagine a life beyond the boundaries of their beachside community – even if the whole of New York is pretty much on their doorstep. It’s also a world where how you look is important – both physically and who you’re with, which leads Frankie towards getting a girlfriend.
However, when his online ‘gay’ life and the straight, masculine one with his friends start to collide, things get potentially dangerous.
In some respects, Beach Rats is an interesting companion piece to the Best Picture Oscar winner, Moonlight, as both look at marginalised young men, where a particular conception of masculinity threatens to constrain their sexuality. Likewise, both are set in worlds where being gay doesn’t seem like a possibility.
There are of course also major differences, but you can certainly see similarities in the way Beach Rats unpacks a version of masculinity that is soul-crushing for anyone who is outside it’s limited vision of what life is and what a man can be. Here Frankie and his friends seems unaware there is anything else – they’ve been dealt a hand and feel that’s the only thing they can play. While the young man starts to have sex with men, he seems to have little conception of how to synthesise that into his wider life.
It’s a beautifully observed look at a very specific teenage world, with a sharp script and subtle direction. This allows the movie to go to some pretty dark and morally complex places, without seeming like it’s stretching credulity or becoming melodramatic. That’s helped enormously by an astonishing performance by Harris Dickinson as Frankie. After you’ve watched the movie, it’s almost shocking to discover that he’s actually British, as thanks to some skilful acting and Eliza Hittman’s powerful direction, he seems to inhabit that world so much that it’s difficult to imagine either the actor or character being from anywhere else. If the world is a fair place, he will score an Oscar nomination – but as it’s not, he probably won’t.
There’s an openness and vulnerability to Dickinson’s performance that makes it seem almost voyeuristic to take such a close look at Frankie’s life. As he secretly scopes out guys online, it almost makes us complicit in the secrecy, as well as creating enormous empathy for his trepidation as he starts to explore his sexuality. It ensures that it’s all the more impactful when he starts making dangerous decisions towards the end of the movie – you can understand what he’s attempting to do, but it’s a clumsy attempt that the viewer is immediately aware is likely to end badly.
There is a tension that runs through the entire movie, where nearly every aspect of Frankie’s life seems fragile an in danger of collapse, despite the masculine braggadocio and confidence he projects when he’s with his friends. Whether it’s his relationship with his family, how he relates to his potential girlfriend or the risks of meeting random men, it’s difficult not to feel he’s in a more precarious position than he realises. What is perhaps most interesting is how unaware the characters are of what seems clear to the outside viewer.
The friction that runs through the movie mixes with the fact that at times it’s a pretty sexy movie, with some well-filmed and pretty erotic sex scenes. These help to break the tension, offering Frankie a tenderness and connection he doesn’t get elsewhere, even if the viewer is well aware it’s likely to be a momentary relief.
All this results in a movie that pulls the audience in with its empathy for its central characters while you’re watching it. It then lives on in your brain for days afterwards – particularly because while it is a film about a very specific world, many LGBT will relate to the issues Frankie is facing.
Overall Verdict: Many have said it’s one of the best gay-themed movies of 2017 – it’s not, it’s one of the best films of the year, full stop.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac