Here is a young actor to keep an eye out for: Harris Dickinson, who is a revelation in Beach Rats, as Frankie, a sexually repressed and confused teen living in Brooklyn. Dickinson is himself all of 20 years old, and grew up in London, and yet it's impossible to imagine any other actor better conveying the fine nuances of Frankie's complex range of emotions -- his self-doubt, his inner struggles, even his internalized homophobia.
Writer-Director Eliza Hittman unpacks this story with deceptive simplicity. She also ends it with a frustrating lack of any resolution whatsoever, something at once respectable and maddening. It's the one true complaint I might have about this film, the way it feels like it ends abruptly in the middle of Frankie's story. Being ambiguous is one thing; fading quickly to black at a seemingly random moment is quite another.
Until that end, however, Beach Rats is a uniquely compelling vision, Frankie systematically making your heart break for him. He hangs out with three straight "bro" types whose behaviors he emulates. It's only after an opening scene in which Frankie is on his computer trolling for older men that we find this out. And he meets a sweet girl (Madeline Weinstein) on the boardwalk while hanging out there with said friends. She complicates things as she makes bold moves in pursuit of Frankie, who has difficulty feigning arousal.
Beach Rats is unusually frank in its depictions of sex, no doubt made easier by its lacking of an MPAA rating. Just consider it a hard-R, considering the number of (flaccid) penises that flash on the screen -- several of them on Frankie's computer as he clicks through a Chat Roulette type site evidently local to Brooklyn. But whether they are of Frankie and Simone making fumbling attempts at physical intimacy, or Frankie and several older men he takes to the beach at night, all these scenes are tastefully shot.
The cinematography, in fact, is regularly hypnotic -- even shots of Frankie and his friends blowing smoke rings at a hookah bar. Beach Rats was shot by Hélène Louvart, who has a long resume but also shot Pina, the 2011 tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch that is arguably the single documentary in history that worked stupendously in 3D. Beach Rats employs a lot of handheld camera work which is seamlessly and beautifully integrated into the story.
That story takes a darker turn near the end, and that's after learning that his father is dying of cancer. He has a younger sister with her own interest in boys, and a mother with clearly too much on her emotional plate. Then Frankie and his friends hatch a plan to get drugs off one of the guys he finds on that website -- he convinces the guys that it's all he uses the site for. Frankie does a lot of drugs, including snorting pills he snatches from his father's prescriptions and crushes into powder.
Now all they want is weed. But in this endeavor, things get increasingly uncomfortable. A feeling builds, that this is going nowhere good. Where it heads is something that could have been worse. It could also be a lot better. Such is the case with Frankie. But if you're looking for either a definitive sign of hope or confirmation of hopelessness with this poor kid, you won't find either one of them here. Will his turmoil go on for the rest of his life? You might leave this movie just overcome with the wishful thinking that one day he'll be okay. That feeling is a credit to both the film's assured direction and Harris Dickinson's unsurpassed performance.