When I was first saw trailers for the Best Picture Winner™ Moonlight last year, I was a little worried that the film was going to be yet another tragically queer coming of age story where a young, closeted protagonist struggles to be their true selves in an unforgiving world determined to propel them to an inevitably violent end. There’s certainly a real world validity to that narrative, but after decades of nearly every major instance of queer representation onscreen following that exact pattern, it’s becoming depressingly limiting to what queer cinema can accomplish as an artform. Thankfully, Moonlight sidestepped most of the Queer Tragedy pitfalls that dull many of its genre peers to deliver something much more transcendently tender & delicately beautiful. The film Beach Rats, which was developed simultaneously at an artist’s retreat with Moonlight by writer-director Eliza Hittman, was much less nimble. Beach Rats is a hyper-specific, wonderfully realized character study about a young queer man navigating the ultra macho beach bro culture that dominates his Brooklyn-based peer group. Its visual language, particularly in its focus on the movement & positioning of bodies, is impressively, subliminally effective. Unfortunately, the film is also stubbornly stuck in an Indie 90s mindset in its estimation of a queer cinema narrative, dimming its idiosyncratic delights in visually detailed culture-gazing to amount to something unnecessarily familiar.
British newcomer Harris Dickinson stars as the confused Brooklynite Frankie (much like how Australian actor Danielle Macdonald recently disappeared into a Jersey Girl persona in Patti Cake$). Pocketing the oxycotin prescribed to his cancer-ridden father, struggling to relate to his grieving mother & sister, and doing his best not to stand out among the Jersey Shore bros that populate his Brooklyn neighborhood, Frankie is unsure how to integrate his sexual interest in the (much) older men he flirts with online into his traditionally macho public persona. He attempts to maintain a romantic relationship with a girl he meets on the boardwalk and claims to the men he begins to hook up with, “I don’t really know what I like,” but his sexual intetests never seem to be in question. It’s clear to the audience (and likely to Frankie) what genuinely turns him on. Excuses why he can’t emotionally or sexually commit to the young woman who’s obviously into him range from having snorted too many pills, lack of condom access, and anxiety over his father’s health, but he seems to have no problem in getting revved up while cruising strange, older men in online chatrooms & on public beaches. As the pressure of maintaining his gym rat beach bro persona while pursuing these anonymous same sex hookups mounts, the movie barrels toward an inevitably dour conclusion that thankfully doesn’t reach for the horrifically violent tragedies typical to its ilk, but still feels overly familiar all the same.
As old hat as Beach Rats feels as a queer cinema narrative, the lived-in imagery of the world it captures feels both believably real & oddly beautiful. The amusement park & nightclub settings these beach bros invade when they’re not shirtlessly staring at the water are near-indistinguishable as neon-lit, electronica-soaked playgrounds, drawing an interesting thread in their continued adolescence even as they search for cheap, drug-fueled highs. The physical rituals of marijuana, handball, and masculine greetings are carefully detailed, especially in the fleeting moments when bodies are socially allowed to touch. While this is far from the explicit territory covered in Stranger by the Lake, Hittman’s eye for this physical communication is carried over to the mostly wordless hookups between queer men, with special attention paid to the strength in the subjects’ muscular hands & buttocks. In an erotic moment, the camera is drawn to the nearest crotch; when the tone turns violent, it lingers on the idle knuckles of potential abusers. This attention to physical detail is never as potent as when Frankie is posing for selfies while working out in his bedroom mirror, baseball cap carefully placed to obscure his face. The way the smartphone flash coldly reflects off greasy thumbprints on the glass is oddly beautiful as Frankie admires & advertises his own body. You can tell Hittman strived to capture a real world setting & culture in this imagery and her attention to its physical detail is what makes Beach Rats feel at all special or worthwhile.
Sometimes, devotion to real world detail is a detriment for the film’s purpose. The dedication to hiring non-professional actors to flesh out its cast feels authentic, but also a little flat. Beach Rats is entirely empathetic to the ultra macho gym bro culture it captures so well onscreen, without a trace of irony in its depiction, but it is a little difficult to suppress laughter while watching Frankie sad-vape or play sad-handball in the rain, as true to life as those images may be. However, that objective approach works well enough while keeping a knowing distance from acknowledging the correlation between Frankie’s thirst for older men & his father’s absence or the vulnerability of identifying as queer in a culture where, “When two girls make out it’s hot; when two guys make out it’s gay.” It’s monstrously unfair to compare Beach Rats & Moonlight solely due to the professional proximity of their creators & their respective depictions of beachside, same sex hookups, but Barry Jenkins’s successes really do exemplify where Hittman missteps. If Beach Rats shared Moonlight‘s narrative instinct in knowing where to pull away from real world tragedy to explore more rarely seen modes of queer representation, it could have been a modern masterwork. As is, it functions just fine as a culturally specific character study with an intense focus on the physicality of its subjects’ social rituals, from the blatantly erotic to the purely fraternal. It’s totally recommendable for those virtues alone, even if it falls short of the transcendent experience it could have been.