Beach Rats (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Bright summer days of a sexually confused lad

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Calmly and closely observing bright summer days of its sexually confused hero, “Becah Rats” gives us a palpable sense of uncertainties surrounding him. While not so sure about his sexuality, he casually lets himself drifted around drug and sex, and the movie makes a lasting impression on us as he is still struggling with himself even in the end.

The hero of the movie is Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a handsome teenager living in the Brooklyn neighborhood of New York City. It is another usual hot summer evening in Brooklyn, and he and his friends are going to the Coney Island when we see them during the opening scene. While they freely walk around in the Coney Island, Frankie comes across a girl named Simone (Madeline Weinstein), and she is instantly attracted to him, but their subsequent night at his house does not go well as he becomes a little too high after inhaling cocaine.

After Frankie wakes up in the next morning, we get to know a bit about his family. His father is a terminal cancer patient going through his last remaining days, and his father’s illness has been a constant gloom hovering around in the household. While Frankie’s mother usually looks weary and concerned as taking care of her husband as well as household, Frankie’s younger sister is relatively livelier in comparison, and we are not so surprised when we later see her having an intimate time with some boy in her neighborhood.

Feels bored and frustrated whenever he is at his home, Frankie does not hesitate to get any chance for fun and excitement. When he is asked to go to a local pharmacy for getting the prescribed drugs for his father, he drops by a place for marijuana smokers before going to the pharmacy. At one point, he and his friends commit a small-time thievery just because they need money, and Frankie has no objection to this criminal activity while feeling a bit excited about it.

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Meanwhile, he comes to spend more time with Simone, who was certainly not so pleased about their previous night but accepts his sincere apology when they happen to come across each other later. When his father eventually passes away, she comes to the funeral, and he later introduces her as his girlfriend to his family, and it looks like they can move onto the next level of their relationship.

However, besides his increasingly frequent substance abuse, there is one certain matter which he has kept to himself. He sometimes checks on a gay online chatting site, and he searches for any older guy willing to have sex with him. The reason why he prefers older guys is simple; they are less likely to run into him than young guys around his age, and some of them provide him drug for extra fun.

He often says to his male sex partners that he does not know what he wants, but he keeps using that gay online chatting site anyway, while continuing his relationship with Simone. As observing Frankie’s ambivalent attitude to his sexuality, I was reminded of many years of my own sexual ambivalence. Yes, I thought I could like woman if I was willing to do, but I was always reminded of my sexuality whenever I became conscious of good-looking male body parts, and I finally did what I should have done from the beginning when I decided that enough is enough in 2016.

Anyway, the situation becomes more complicated for Frankie as his balance among the compartmentalized sides of his life is disrupted by a series of events. There is an awkward moment when he happens to run into one of those older guys while spending another fun time with Simone and his friends, and it is followed by a very frustrating private moment between him and Simone, who eventually decides that he is not that suitable for her. When he and his friends run out of money and drug, he decides to do something risky along with his friends, and that accordingly leads to a dark, uncomfortable moment later in the movie.

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For making us empathize with her hero’s conflicted state of mind, director/writer Eliza Hittman makes an interesting visual choice with her cinematographer Hélène Louvart. The movie often gazes or glimpses at the good-looking bodies of Frankie and his friends, and that aspect took me back to those memorably homoerotic moments of Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail” (1999), which is another good example of presenting male bodies as objects of desire. When Frankie is preparing for another hookup during one short scene, the camera closely looks around his naked body, and I was certainly impressed to see a male body being presented with considerable carnal sensuality.

The main performers in the movie are commendable in their unadorned natural performances. In what may be a breakthrough turn in his burgeoning acting career, Harris Dickinson is unforgettable as the troubled hero of the movie, and he is also supported well by his fellow cast members. While Madeline Weinstein and Kate Hodge hold their own small places well as two substantial female figures in the story, David Ivanov, Anton Selyaninov, and Frank Hakaj are also effective in their respective roles, and they and Dickinson did a good job of conveying to us the peer group mentality among their characters.

“Beach Rats”, which is available on Netflix in South Korea as “The Wave of Brooklyn”, is the second feature film from Hittman, who previously debuted with “It Felt Like Love” (2013) after making several short films. Although I have not seen that film yet, I admire what she achieves in “Beach Rats”, and I think it will be interesting to see what will come next from her.

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