Chloe Lizotte on Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats)
Adolescence often means grappling with the feeling of a lack of control—over one’s own body and desires, over social situations, over one’s home and family. So there’s some comfort in the classical “coming-of-age” film, in which a protagonist earns greater awareness or empowerment as narrative payoff. Both of Eliza Hittman’s films focus on teenagers, but she preempts the expected label by referring to them as “coming-of-consciousness” stories. Rather than charting her characters’ trajectories towards enlightened maturity, Hittman asks them to feel their way through the emotional dark, guided by impulse, rerouted and misdirected by social pressures. She attunes us to her characters’ sensory wavelengths so that we might viscerally experience their confusion, in which surrounding bodies are often rendered as a tactile onslaught.
Hittman has also said that she wants her two movies thus far to feel like horror films; by animating a connection between physicality and teenage anxiety, they land somewhere in the realm of body horror. In her work, to have a body is to confront it as an alien entity, all while being pushed and pulled by tidal hormonal forces—and in that struggle, to try and recognize the whole package as one’s own. Her 2013 feature debut It Felt Like Love follows an exceptionally slight 14-year-old named Lila, who is envious of her best friend’s sexual experience and self-possession. She ends up drawn to a college-aged guy, Sammy, while trying to find a conduit for her unrealized lust; as she tries to force her fantasies into reality, she ends up in increasingly disquieting and dangerous situations. Beach Rats, Hittman’s 2017 sophomore effort, inverts the prior film’s dynamic: Frankie, somewhere around age 18, spends a summer circling and alighting on his attraction to other men, a process of tentative experimentation and complicated internal rationalization, all of which stems from the stigmatization of homosexuality in his community.
It’s not a matter of Frankie simply hopping on the subway to escape to a more progressive part of Brooklyn—Hittman, who grew up in Flatbush, sets the story in the working-class neighborhood of Gerritsen Beach, a peninsula beyond the terminus of the MTA and inaccessible by ferry. After driving to meet him, one of Frankie’s potential hookups says it’s not actually that far away by car. But it might as well be worlds away: after his father falls ill, Frankie stays close to support his mother, and has limited access to work opportunities that would take him elsewhere. Hittman understands that the most personal and interior stories are inextricably shaped by socioeconomic context—perhaps an obvious point, but, in a media landscape conducive to straightforward takeaways, her aesthetic and narrative approaches seem all the more vital. Hittman doesn’t guide her work to a moralistic endpoint; instead, in an expressionistic form of social realism, she builds up to the very impossibility of resolution.
We meet Frankie (Harris Dickinson, a true discovery), in flashes of light: his iPhone illuminates his reflection in the mirror as he takes several photos showing off his torso, pumping a dumbbell, adjusting the shadowy brim of his snapback. We’ll soon see him log into a Chatroulette-style vidcam-chatting site—halfway through the film he’ll scroll through different shots of himself, trying to select one for his profile. A selfie involves recontextualizing oneself as the object of a gaze, but Frankie is still reticent to claim ownership of that identity, or reveal anything definitive about himself to others. At first, he shrouds himself in shadow, preferring to hide his face as he flips through video feeds of awkwardly cropped and lit crotches, or of clothed men tentatively calling “hello” into his darkened space. In spite of his immediate surroundings, Frankie can investigate his attraction online, and in privacy—although he has a bedroom that he hasn’t updated since he was in grade school, he cloisters himself away from the rest of his house in the basement, where he says “it’s cooler,” and less stifling. “I don’t really know what I like,” he admits to one of the men on the site, but his curiosity isn’t played with coy ambiguity; he works up to asking him to unzip his pants.
In sharp contrast to that space, Hittman cuts to Frankie meeting up with a cohort of bros—Nick, Alexei, and Jesse, all played by non-actors from Sheepshead Bay—at Coney Island. The setting and mood could not be further removed from the first half of Frankie’s night: it’s a locus of overstimulating lights, noise, and people. With minimal dialogue, we learn about the group through action: physicality is important, as the group gravitates to playing with the high striker; later, a member of Frankie’s crew picks a wallet from the back pocket of an unsuspecting arcade gamer, then passes it backwards from hand to hand down the line. Frankie meets his would-be love interest, Simone (Madeline Weinstein), during a fireworks show; she zeroes in on him on the boardwalk and offers a knowingly perfunctory “Aren’t they beautiful?” He responds that the fireworks are a routine show, scheduled every week, an empty explosion of energy. Unlike Frankie, Simone has a confidence in her desires and physicality that translates into an ease of tactility—later in the film, she’ll scrawl her phone number on his arm, or he’ll find a guy lathering sun tan lotion on her legs on the beach. Frankie closes himself off in an effort to shield himself from this energy, coursing through his surroundings and social life.
Alert and reactive to these anxieties, Hittman’s camera skitters around Frankie’s world; she’ll move into sudden close-ups to accentuate a touch, or use abrupt edits to convey his dislocation. When Simone hops into a bumper car with Frankie, Hittman’s camera cuts close as she puts her hand on his leg. Everything surrounding Frankie—neon lights, trap music—keeps moving while his face goes blank, frozen on the spot. Later that night, Frankie gets skittish as soon as his friends try to give them some privacy, but takes Simone back to his place because it’s the thing to do. He snorts crushed painkillers to dull his senses, and eventually pushes her away by making fun of her attempts at setting a mood: pretending to wear her bra, he mockingly repeats her question, “Do you think I’m pretty?” Throughout the film, Hittman reminds us of the link between intimacy and vulnerability; here, Frankie breaks off any trust between them, and Simone rebuffs him. Frankie apologizes to Simone on the beach a few days later, explaining, “I have a lot going on right now”—and although she stays guarded, they gradually begin a relationship, Frankie pretending that he reciprocates her feelings to keep up appearances.
At this moment, Frankie has little to hold onto: Beach Rats’ tone is set by the death of Frankie’s father, who’s in home hospice care for cancer when the film begins. This is handled quietly and off-screen: Frankie sits down to talk to him one evening, and reaches for his hand, against the steady beeping and airflow of his life support machine. While his little sister, Carla, managed to tell him a few details about school, here words seem both insufficient and impossible. As his mom climbs into the cot, he watches his father in stunned silence, his eyes wide, his reaction interior. In seconds, we’re with Frankie in the backseat of his car en route to the funeral, contemplative, the steadiness of the machine dissipating into silence. Frankie recedes further inside himself while coping with this loss; although Hittman does not psychoanalyze his passing, it opens up a curious void. We don’t have a strong sense of adult men in Gerritsen Beach, or much of an idea of Frankie’s life beyond a small scope of summertime activities—caring for his father, hanging out on the beach with his friends, vaping, working out, hooking up—which encloses him in a loop that he might run forever. The weight of grief emotionally untethers Frankie, but even if his father were alive, it seems unlikely that he would easily find a space to express what he’s going through. So sparing and specific is Hittman’s dialogue that we glean social norms from seemingly innocuous interactions. Soon after Frankie’s father dies, his mom relates to Simone how they also had their first meeting on the boardwalk, pushing romantic convention. For these reasons, Frankie harbors some resentment towards Carla after he sees her holding hands with a boy on the playground; watching their little summer romance from afar reinforces his out-of-place feelings.
Hittman also renders codes of conduct through the film’s texture—hypermasculinity surrounds Frankie like humidity. Frankie’s inner turmoil is stirred up by his desire to fit into his group of friends, and he eventually transforms his appearance to erase any exterior sense of difference, shearing his undercut into a buzz and trading his oversized tee for a muscle tank. But Frankie can’t tune out his confusion, merging athleticism with eroticism: a handball game accelerates percussively, whipping through a new blur of torso or fragmented muscle with each thud of the ball against the wall. By way of its seaside setting and focus on masculine group dynamics, Beach Rats has drawn comparison to Beau travail; both Denis and Hittman find ways of keeping their films open emotionally without needing to explain away every glance or interaction. In an open-ended scene on the beach, Frankie and two of his friends scamper into the water with abandon while the fourth friend hangs back. He sits down in the sand and watches Frankie from the beach, his gaze loaded, seeming to sense that Frankie has let some guard down in a setting where he’s normally closed off. Although his friends also respond more explicitly to this feeling later in the story, there’s never a verbal payoff or resolution to this scene, just undistributed energy left percolating.
Even if Beach Rats’ form is shaped by Frankie’s psyche, Hittman often strives to catch a clear glimpse of him amidst shadows and reflections. She’ll set up inconvenient angles—after he wakes up, he often goes out to get some air in the backyard, and Hittman will frame his head from behind, as if waiting to see his face. This works reflexively, evoking both Frankie’s lack of clarity and his discomfort with presenting himself. Even when he seems close to letting go, he finds ways to slip away from revealing himself to the camera. After he begins dating Simone, he gets a bit more confident online, and suggests in-person meet-ups with some of the men. His first encounter takes place at night on the beach; Hittman, working with Pina and The Wonders DP Hélène Louvart, switches to trembling handheld while Frankie drifts into the underbrush behind his older partner, whose head blends into the darkness except for the strip of skin below his hairline. Waves ebb and flow as the camera blurs in and out of focus, cutting tight to hands gripping flesh. Frankie closes his eyes and watches the water, then we see him walk towards it, the back of his body illuminated by a flashlight as he submerges into an inky void—Philippe Grandrieux’s White Epilepsy, in which bodies contort themselves into otherworldly abstractions, was a formal influence, according to Hittman. Even as he experiments physically with his desires, he resists them emotionally; just as Hittman complicates visual understanding of physicality, he pushes feelings back into the abstract right as they seem like they could solidify into something concrete.
Occasionally, he’ll test the waters with opening up to those around him, as he does when he asks Simone what she’d think of two guys making out—in her words, it’s gay when two guys do it, but hot when two girls do—but there’s no clear way for him to safely reconcile his inner and outer experiences. Frankie’s friends seem to sense this growing distance right around the time his dad’s painkiller prescription runs out; as they put pressure on him, we’ll more often cut past any buildup right to Frankie in the midst of acting out. His friends look on silently while Frankie rifles through his mom’s jewelry box to pawn off valuables for petty cash; as the story progresses, he behaves in increasingly dangerous ways to prove he’s game, or risk not belonging. Whenever his worlds come close to colliding, Frankie is terrified—during a motel room hook-up, he states outright that he has a girlfriend, and doesn’t think of himself as gay. Soon after, he spots the same man tending bar when he’s out with his friends on a party boat. Unable to compartmentalize the encounter, Frankie has a drug-fueled freakout: the rager is a neon-tinted EDM nightmare, throwing his surroundings into disorder. He starts a fight on the dance floor and has rough, uncomfortable sex with Simone, his tension exploding outwards into aggression. With no one to turn to, or nowhere to escape, Frankie’s begins to lash out at the reality that closes in on him.
Jeremy, the first person Frankie arranges to see who seems to be around his age, is ultimately the casualty of all of these factors. As Frankie admits, there’s less of a chance that older men would know his friends, thus keeping them at a safe distance; because of that proximity, though, Jeremy is the first of Frankie’s dalliances that one could envision him meeting up with again. As they get to know each other, he also seems to see through Frankie’s fronts. They share a brief car ride together, and in one candid camera motion aligned with Frankie’s perspective, the shot tilts down and away from Jeremy as soon as they make eye contact, as though it were too intimate to sustain. But that avoidant glance also evokes Frankie’s distressed inability to face what he’s about to do to Jeremy. As his friends prod at his secrecy about his nighttime walks, Frankie mentions that he poses as gay online to get weed; needless to say, this backfires. They ask Frankie to take Jeremy to the beach, and wait to ambush him in the brush to take his pot. Frankie is caught between exposing himself to his friends by definitively trying to shake them, or going along with their plan just to keep them placated: Hittman suggests that this leads to a paralysis that could prove fatal.
While a feeling of quiet melancholy propels both of Hittman’s films, they each conclude on a heightened note of menace or violence, introducing an ever-present potential for irreversible damage. After they walk into the woods, Frankie anxiously tries to backpedal, and suggests they leave to hang out at his house, but it’s too late—irrelevant to any question of drugs, his friends get Jeremy in a chokehold and knock him unconscious, leaving him lying facedown in the surf. Frankie watches from the shore, but can’t bring himself to intervene. Bearing witness seals Frankie within himself—the next day, he wipes his selfies from his hard drive, hoping to erase the origins of what happened that night, but it’s a surface-level gesture. The emotional support that might ease his torture is out of reach, and there’s no way for him to verbally address the guilt related to Jeremy’s death: he manifests the human toll of the very mechanisms that keep Frankie silent. A pair of closing scenes leave Frankie boxed into himself, as he gazes out towards an impenetrable sea, and later that night, stands transfixed beneath another fireworks show at Coney Island, its bursts of cascading sparks a reminder of all that he keeps inside.
Beach Rats is difficult to conclusively pin down, and all the more interesting because of this. It’s a film that asks viewers to internalize its rhythms and undercurrents; although it progresses towards closing its protagonist inside himself, each scene texturally opens itself up to intuitive interpretations. Perhaps it felt strangely overlooked at the end of 2017 because of its refusal to lend itself to verbal summation, or for its rejection of an overarching message of gay positivity (Hittman was critiqued for the stereotypical implications of killing off Jeremy during Q&As at Sundance, where the film premiered). Rather, Hittman’s focus is analytical and circumstantial; the film presents an often profoundly sad portrait of a character whose sexual awakening is shaped and stunted by circumstances he cannot change, and then leaves him behind when he’s unable to even speak. With this hyperlocal examination of an outer Brooklyn that doesn’t conventionally grace the screens of New York indie film, Hittman exists in a productive space where atmospheric character study meets a social realism devoid of mouthpieces, irreducible into talking points and profoundly felt.