I don’t really know what I like.
Frankie (Harris Dickinson) has a lot on his mind. His father (Neal Huff‘s Joe) is dying of cancer in his living room. His little sister (Nicole Flyus‘ Carla) just got her first boyfriend. And his mother (Kate Hodge‘s Donna) is struggling to keep everything from falling apart. It’s no wonder that Frankie finds himself stealing a few of his dad’s pain pills each night to get high on the boardwalk with a trio of friends (Frank Hakaj‘s Nick, David Ivanov‘s Alexei, and Anton Selyaninov‘s Jesse) who operate relationships like business transactions: you’re worth their while if you’re bringing something to the table. He needs their presence to keep his sanity, though. He needs their rampant testosterone and complete lack of empathy to remind him that he’s a “man.”
What kind of “man,” though? A man who looks to sleep with women before bragging about the conquest and ultimately forgetting they exist? A man who is loved and cherished like his father even as disease renders him inert? Or a man with the courage to live his life without having to worry about what anyone else thinks? You could argue Frankie is none of the above. He’s too avoidant to be anything but a liar pretending to fit the mold those around him desire. He lies to his friends about being as narcissistically chauvinistic as them. He lies to his family about being emotionally present to help endure their collective anguish. And he lies to his girlfriend (Madeline Weinstein‘s Simone) by using that label despite being gay.
This is the underlying issue at the heart of Eliza Hittman‘s Beach Rats. This is the truth Frankie uses drugs, machismo, and sex to hide from. It’s one he can’t even speak aloud to himself let alone to the men he finds on the internet to meet-up for no-strings-attached rendezvouses. The admission of who he really is would implode his entire world—or at least he believes it would. He thinks it would be another burden carried by his family at a moment of grief so he affects an air of strength and control to prove his might. He knows it would alienate the only friends he has without seeing that they’re his friends precisely because their personas are a huge part of shielding himself from this reality.
So Frankie seeks to maintain the status quo eating him alive instead. He musters the bravery necessary to show his face on these gay chat rooms while making certain to skip to older men he can both secure (they find him pretty) and be secure about (there’s no way they’d have mutual acquaintances). But he only finds that boldness upon acquiring the distraction he needs to lead the double life that keeps those he interacts with daily in the dark. Simone becomes his unwitting protector by simply existing. She’s who he tells everyone he’s meeting when out on a sexual encounter with strangers (Douglas Everett Davis‘ Harry, Harrison Sheehan‘s Jeremy, and others). Her presence as a prop allows him to pretend the other stuff isn’t his true self.
It is, though, and he’s having a hard time pretending otherwise anymore. This is life in the closet—toeing that line between two worlds to reap the selfish benefits each provides while inevitably tearing himself apart in the process. And it doesn’t matter that Frankie has people he can talk to about it. His mother is desperate to know what’s going on, but she’s the last person he wants to tell. Does that mean he’d tell his father if he could? No, but maybe having the option open could have supplied help. He rhetorically broaches the subject with Simone and the boys instead only to watch them laugh or gaze back in disgust like he assumed. Does he therefore risk losing them or continue losing himself?
As the universe pushes him to the brink of making the former’s difficult choice for his own health, however, Frankie’s fear doubles back to the latter and risks losing everything anyway. To see one of his “dates” in public while with his “girlfriend” causes so much panic and anxiety that he fully self-destructs. He consumes more alcohol and pills until he overcompensates so far that he becomes the asshole. And when Frankie believes he might have a way to ease his friends into accepting the world his body desires, he blinds himself to the nightmarish repercussions we see very clearly. This leads us to a tense climax in which I know I held my breath multiple times while anticipating the violent reckoning that readied itself upon the horizon.
Hittman authentically puts this internal war on-screen thanks to a wonderful central performance by Dickinson. Frankie endures constant injections of fight or flight adrenaline as he perpetually weighs his options within different scenarios to save himself at the detriment of innocents thrust into danger because they trusted him. While Frankie might be able to push away regrets he has about placing his own psychological health in jeopardy, ignoring the guilt from forcing others into those precarious situations (or worse) isn’t so easy. Neither is accepting his identity as though a switch could be flipped, though. Hittman is keenly aware of the complexities and lets her character progress to his breaking point without assuming his future. Beach Rats proves less about overcoming fear as it is officially confronting it.
 Frankie (Harris Dickinson) and his crew in Eliza Hittman’s BEACH RATS, courtesy of NEON
 Simone (Madeline Weinstein) in Eliza Hittman’s BEACH RATS, courtesy of NEON
 Frankie (Harris Dickinson) looks on at the beach in Eliza Hittman’s BEACH RATS, courtesy of NEON