Beach Rats Review: Sex, Drugs, and Brooklyn

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I found myself, in the middle of Beach Rats, wondering when the film was taking place. Here’s an LGBT film released in 2017 where a teenage boy, living in the East Coast’s progressive capital of Brooklyn no less, can’t seem to admit to himself that he’s attracted to men. Of course, moments after the thought crossed my mind that this was a period piece, I remembered the opening scene in which Frankie (Harris Dickinson, in hopefully a star-making turn) engaged in an online video chat site for men trying to hook up with other men. Frankie’s struggle is right now, just as Chiron’s was in Moonlight. We have plenty of LGBT period pieces, from when the prejudice was more apparent (Carol and the upcoming festival darling Call Me By Your Name, for example) simply because of the times. But in 2017, the prejudice is still apparent, as Beach Rats pops our bubble to expose a world of adolescent angst that traps a young man in the closet.

Frankie’s age is never really specified. He drinks at bars, most likely with a fake ID, and all around causes trouble with a small group of friends his mother (Kate Hodge) detests. He even slips himself and his friends a few of his dying father’s pills. And yet, the film is never judgmental toward Frankie’s actions, instead treating him as a confused kid being held back from coming into his own. He’s partially to blame for that, but so is his environment and his new girlfriend (Madeline Weinstein), who literally says to him, after he asks, that two girls making out is “hot” but two boys making out is “gay.”

Beach Rats has an incredibly immersive sense of place. The culture on display here in the parts of Brooklyn yet to be gentrified feels authentic, like it’s bubbling right under the surface of all the art studio’s and brunch spots. And it’s true, no gay couple who moved here as an escape from the Midwest or elsewhere is going to go on a PDA-filled romp in an area far removed from their bubble (“There’s an Avenue Z?!” one of Frankie’s potential online mate’s asks in shock, presumably from his Carroll Gardens two-bedroom with a coffee shop as the ground floor). The film is a reminder that, depending on your surroundings and your family’s attitude, growing up queer can be as hard in Brooklyn as it can be in the Deep South. That message is carried delicately but powerfully by Dickinson’s astounding lead performance, which boils over with pent-up frustrations and overflowing faux-masculinity.

But how do you form a message that gets through to the main character without sacrificing the film’s haunting tone violently dripping with authenticity? That’s where writer-director Eliza Hittman falters most, as the film’s conclusion disappointingly goes a more ambiguous route rather than finding a way to give Frankie solace from within his own world. We saw Moonlight achieve just that less than a year ago with a similar mash-up of dream-like visuals and a pinpoint accuracy of its setting. Beach Rats falls short of that, but falling short of one of the decade’s greatest cinematic accomplishments is hardly damning. This is a film bursting with life told artfully, it just isn’t quite as sure how to make its point. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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