It’s difficult to find a good movie that tackles themes about sexuality, specifically homosexuality, in a realistic, respectful and original way. Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman, 2010) is a great addition to the queer canon, for a number of reasons, but unfortunately the film itself didn’t float my boat.
What did I like about Beach Rats?
Social realism is not often a term used to described queer cinema, although movies like Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011) and Théo & Hugo (Olivier Ducastel & Jacques Martineau, 2016) are certainly changing and challenging that preconception. The social and financial inequality that Frankie (Harris Dickinson) experiences in Beach Rats, where he has to literally beg, borrow and steal to get high, was a nice way to compound his feelings of frustration and make his situation seem all the more real and pressing. It also highlighted the untimely and unwanted burden of “coming out” in your late teens.
Fireworks as a recurring metaphor for hormones, testosterone and “teenage kicks” was a fun and frisky form of pathetic fallacy that really captured both the frivolous and innocent nature of youth, as well as the beauty and chaotic nature behind most coming of age stories. We see them in real-life at the Coney Island fireworks display, when he’s pursuing his supposed female love interest; and we see them as the screensaver for his computer, which exposes the artifice of his assumed heterosexuality. This use of mirroring is an effective visual motif that draws attention to the dual existence suffered by most people who feel unable to be honest and open about their sexual identity.
I have to add that the acting was on point, especially for a supporting cast of non-actors. And the 16 mm photography imbued the film with a grainy nostalgia that really takes the viewer back to those periods of rest and restlessness during the school summer holidays, particularly the status frustration felt when you’re not older enough to do what you want, buy what you want or be who you want.
What didn’t I like about Beach Rats?
Let’s be straight, there’s no need for a film to provide a denouement. I appreciated the lack of closure and denial of poetic justice in Beach Rats, but what I didn’t like was how it seemed to only scratched the surface of what it means to be homosexual. For a film that so accurately and explicitly depicts some of the tropes of being gay, it felt disappointing not to see them explored further. It made it seem like the pacing was slightly off, or that the film was more concerned with the representation of masculinity in relation to violence, which was also a key theme throughout. As a result, the tropes felt more like clichés and the film failed to land a metaphorical punch for me.
Other than that, I didn’t dislike much about Beach Rats. Except for the comment my friend made as we were leaving the cinema. He said he didn’t think the lead actor was “that hot” and “looked a bit feminine”. It may have been a flippant remark, but I felt that it really undermined the intentions of the film and attacked its authenticity, as if he were viewing it only through a camp lens (as defined by Susan Sontag in her essay, Notes on “Camp”) because of its subject matter, rather than elevating and permitting it to other forms of scrutiny and understanding. So yeah, I got a bit defensive.
Watch the trailer and learn more about Matthew Hepburn.