Review: 'Beach Rats', Closeted Sexuality On Coney Island

"Do you think men kissing other men is hot?"

"No. Men kissing other men is just gay."

It's not the answer buffed, Coney Island meathead Frankie (terrific newcomer Harris Dickinson) is hoping for from his new girlfriend, Simone (Madeline Weinstein) in Eliza Hittman's sophomore feature, Beach Rats. But then, what kind of answer was he really looking for? What if she did think it was hot? Would that then give him permission to be with another man in front of her? Is that what he wants?

In Barry Jenkins' superb Moonlight, a gay boy in a deeply masculine Miami culture packs on muscle and a tough-guy exterior to hide his sexual orientation. Hittman's haunting and erotic film tells a similar tale of repression, tinged with the ever-present sense of dread. While it lacks Moonlight's racial distinction, Beach Rats is nonetheless about another virile lifestyle in which coming out is an impossibility, if not outright suicide. Frankie is part of a group of lazy, suntanned and hormonal teens who do little to pass the day but sit around the beach looking for ways to score weed. For the most part they are pretty terrible on the inside, but on the outside their bodies glisten like those of gods, fogged only by the occasional puff of weed smoke.

As terrible as they may be, Frankie isn't quite like his bros. He may flirt with and even date girls his age but when online he's cruising the webcams for older men. He likes them much more. And there's no way in the world they know the same people he knows. Discreet meetings late in the night satiate his confused urgings, while in the day he keeps the red-blooded façade alive for his friends, girlfriend, and concerned mother. His toned, muscular frame is the armor he needs just to survive until the night.

Hittman's focus on burgeoning sexuality is similar to that of her breakthrough feature, 2014's It Felt Like Love, which tackled the subject from one obsessed heterosexual girl's perspective. Stylistically, Hittman and French cinematographer Hélène Louvart's beautiful 16mm images capture the strength and the frailty of the male touch. Scenes of Frankie and his frequently-shirtless buddies playing handball under the sunlight have a virile energy, only to be contrast later by an errant tough of a man's hand that causes him to cower away in fear.

This is a better example of Hittman's skills as a filmmaker than her previous film was, even if the story is less compelling. A certain amount of shallowness is to be expected from this group of aimless New York douchebags, but Frankie's inner life never emerges as it should to make up for a story that feels very rote. The indie scene is littered with characters just like Frankie hiding the same shame. There was a flurry of movies about this very thing post-Brokeback Mountain, when Hollywood was still trying to learn how to depict the homosexual experience realistically. But perhaps Beach Rats would have been easier to accept pre-Moonlight. While comparing it to that Best Picture winner is admittedly unfair, recognizing the lack of detail and texture in the world Frankie exists in isn't.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5