LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: BEACH RATS – the second feature from Eliza Hittman – screened at Picturehouse Central last night (06 OCT). Here’s our writeup.
BEACH RATS (2017, USA, 95min)
LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: BEACH RATS – the second feature from Eliza Hittman – screened at the BFI London Film Festival last night. It is a beautiful study of conflicted sexuality in extreme close-up. The camera never leaves Harris Dickinson as Frankie, a Brooklyn teenager living a million miles from the bright lights and sexual freedom of Manhattan. Intimate but never exploitative or voyeuristic, the up close and personal treatment creates a singular point of view as if we are seeing Frankie’s entire world through the very narrow frame of his young existence.
“There’s an Avenue Z?! That’s like the other side of the galaxy!”
Place plays a huge part in Hittman’s story. She avoids contextual shots of locations but the contrast between Frankie’s life and those of the men he meets for casual sex – initially in chat rooms and then cruising in their cars as they head onto their elsewhere homes – couldn’t be more extreme. Hittman presents Frankie’s world as a series of tightly framed, increasingly abstract playgrounds – the boardwalk, a vape shop, a floating nightclub on a ship – that feel otherworldly and of their own indeterminate time.
Frankie’s life is tightly bound up in his own rapidly emerging manhood: caring for an ill and dying father, the compounding responsibilities of being elder brother and dutiful son. He is similarly bound into his closeted life, deeply immersed in rowdy masculine friendship, the only pressure outlets being drink, drugs snatched from his father’s medicine cabinet and an attempt at a relationship.
Women are important here. Simone (Madeline Weinstein) is the film’s sane and sorted girlfriend material searching for “ready renovated” rather than a “fixer-upper”. Frankie’s mother Donna (Kate Hodge) struggles to hold onto the rules of her home whilst his sister prematurely strives for the trappings of adolescence. Unbeknownst to everyone, Frankie’s search is similarly pragmatic, meeting up with older men as they won’t know anyone he knows before roping his friends into a disastrous hookup as he attempts to manage the conflicting strands of his own story.
“You kinda stink but it’s turning me on”
The story might seem familiar, but the joy here is in Hittman’s telling. Performers, cameras and close-ups create a striking atmosphere that locates the drama in Frankie’s barely articulate frustration. Having shot her film with French cinematographer Hélène Louvart (see also DARK NIGHT), Hittman cites experimental filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux as inspiration in the post-screening Q&A. BEACH RATS perfectly echoes Grandrieux’s WHITE EPILEPSY (2012) as pale, isolated bodies fade in and out of the 16mm darkness. For all the youthful beauty of the film’s beach bodies, there is also horror about what they signify for Frankie’s desire, identity and belonging.
Harris Dickinson is remarkable, never revealing his London roots whilst connecting seamlessly with his non-professional co-stars. From the opening selfies to numerous strips before sex, handball and swims, the camera is never far away from his body. It’s a confident performance that stresses, for all Frankie’s internal yearning, the physical immediacy of young lives. As Hittman puts it, Dickinson is “a perfect match for the idea of a man in a teenager’s body”, a young frame still coming into focus.
“Making a film is a chaotic & dark experience”
This isn’t an easy or a romantic story. There’s no peppermint foot lotion wish fulfilment as the boys of BEAUTIFUL THING dance out their end credits. Hittman’s film conveys Frankie’s boxed-in and at times painful life with remarkable immediacy and clarity, cutting the story abruptly short with a final storm cloud of fireworks and smoke. Opportunity seems a long way away here, even though a very different life is just around the corner.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- Find BEACH RATS, Eliza Hittman, Hélène Louvart, Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein and Kate Hodge on IMDb.
- BEACH RATS screened in the DARE strand at the BFI London Film Festival 2017: “In-your-face, up-front and arresting: films that take you out of your comfort zone.”
- Read our Festival preview here and our daily writeups here.
- Don’t just take our blogging word for it: ONE ROOM WITH A VIEW wasn’t in love with BEACH RATS whilst GAY ESSENTIAL feels a bit more like we did.
- Director Eliza Hittman’s debut feature IT FELT LIKE LOVE is available on DVD from the big river and other retailers. It also streams on Amazon Video on the mubi channel.
- Check out French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux and his experimental film WHITE EPILEPSY (2012) for more about the BEACH RATS look.
Featured images: BEACH RATS (2017)