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Film Friday Essay

I Don’t Really Know What I Like: On Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats.”

Beach Rats opens with a montage central to the film’s discourse about desire, in this case a desire partially exposed, partially in shadow. The resulting images will be familiar to anyone who was growing up on Facebook between 2009-2012: a guy’s reflection in a mirror, a selfie of the top off and flash on variety. The familiarity of this image, and the superabundance of this kind of image-making generally, may distract from how complicated this act is. The person making this image is turning himself from subject to object—this happens in every picture taken with the express purpose of being shown to another person. Consider how desire develops the mode of address. The image should titillate, excite its viewer. But look again at the details, harshly lit by the shocking brightness of the flash: the guy’s snapback is slanted across his eyes down to his nose; he’s holding a dumbbell to emphasise his arm—face obscured but physique accentuated. The photographer has self-objectified his own likeness, but the operation of this image is still more potent than that, because it feeds upon the trade-off between display and disguise. These images are a highly anonymous kind of vulnerability. 

The author of this image, as well as the subject of this film, is Frankie (Harris Dickinson). The destination of his images, it appears, is a website called Brooklyn Boys: a cam service for local men. His anonymous vulnerability here is even heavier than in the photographs. In the low light of his basement, his hat still hiding his eyes, Frankie scrolls past the video feeds of men dancing while naked, doing repetitions with weights, or simply on the lookout for a good prospect. He stops on an older man’s page. They chat, haltingly. The man asks for a better look at Frankie; he obliges, turning on a light while throwing off the cap. “Pretty,” he’s told, “real pretty.” Frankie has strong blue eyes and an unemotive face. He thanks the man and asks to see his cock. From the hesitation, the not quite engagement in conversation, it’s easy to think Frankie isn’t all that interested. But he doesn’t look away. On more than one occasion in the film, he will say: “I don’t really know what I like.” He’s not lying; he’s not being coy. The hesitancy makes it seem like this is his first foray into his desire for men (it won’t be his last): his first attempt, all from the comfort of his basement, to work out who and what he really likes—an erotics of the closet. 

Frankie, aged 19 or so, lives in Gerritsen, South Brooklyn, with his mother, Donna (Kate Hodge), and younger sister. His father is slowly dying in the living room. His illness, a debilitating cancer, affords Frankie with access to his pain medication, which he and his “friends”—the beach rats of the title—crush up and snort during long, boring summer days spent playing handball in the park, sauntering down the beach, or lounging around a local vape shop. I ironised the word “friends” because Frankie so often does. “These guys,” he gestures, “they’re not my friends.” The attitude he adopts at home and on the boardwalk—a sullen, uncommunicative scowl on his face and a sharp, dismissive verbal manner—might make it seem like he’s being curtly ironic, but he’s telling the truth. These pals are hangers-on, people he’s known a long time. There isn’t much conversation, and when it comes it does so in the form of insults, insults that long ago stopped being jokes. But Beach Rats captures the way this quartet moves in unison, with their muscular figures, fidgety physicalities, stooping, side-to-side swaggers, similar mumbling cadences, and a definite reticence to share anything but inessential words, and yet the film also demonstrates that Frankie sees the time he spends with these unindividuated guys as inescapable, as something of an obligation: an obligation that will dovetail with awful inevitability towards the film’s conclusion.  

It’s during this long, boring summer that he meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein), and, after a faltering and mean-spirited first encounter, enters into a tentative relationship with her. It’s also around this time when Frankie’s father dies. Donna, whose preemptive grief is clear from her first movement onscreen, is shut in with her feelings; in a later scene, she calls the house phone repeatedly because the answering machine isn’t working: when Frankie fixes it, he sees why this was important—his father’s cheerful voice greets them. His sister is busy with the process of her own identity-formation, signalled by the instigation of a summer romance with a boy her age (which Frankie keeps an eye on; it at first seems like protective older sibling watchfulness, but in truth it’s closer to simple envy). His longing for exactly this kind of simple, affirmative intimacy, which, not being out, he can’t yet share with men, is why he sees Simone. But there’s a less salutary way of phrasing that: he’s using her as a beard. While he’s going out with her he can readily and convincingly answer any questions, from home or from his pals, about where he spends his time—whereas he’s really out for nocturnal assignations with the men he meets on Brooklyn Boys. (While it’s possible that Frankie resolved not to admit his interest in men before his father’s death, there is, for this film and the work of director Eliza Hittman generally, a rare note of shallow psychologising: as though, through his sex life, he’s merely after a Father Figure Who Fucks.)

Frankie’s grief is expressed only in sublimated form, and as he spirals during the course of the summer the four compartmentalised chambers of his life begin to collapse on him. As his dependency on drugs remains strong despite the cutoff supply, his father’s insurer no longer allowing repeat prescriptions, Frankie takes to increasingly unfeeling means to acquire them: he rakes around his mother’s jewellery box, pinches a pair of earrings and pawns them for a night out. With no hint of a surprise relations at home hit the floor. One of his hookups, with an older man from Brooklyn Boys, turns sour as the man places the brunt of sexual expectation on him. Simone breaks up with him after an obstreperous night-out, revealing that she was thinking of the relationship in her own, different, but still transactional terms: “You’re a fixer-upper….I need newly renovated.” And every time he’s with his pals the social chafing is visible in his wearied blue eyes, and his exasperation leads him to a truly unthinkable decision. All of this happens because Frankie, like most of those around him, disavows talking.

Dickinson’s performance, with his guarded line delivery, shyness of gesture, occasional stillness, and resolute lack of emotional forthrightness, places him squarely in a recent tradition of recessive film acting marked out by Shonni Enelow in her Film Comment essay, “The Great Recession.” Enelow writes: ‘the thread of resistance to and evasion of spectacular emotionality….doesn’t evoke emotional detachment or indifference but rather a tortured mistrust of expression itself’. Nowhere is this clearer than when Frankie indulges in irony, which betokens, in his case, a refusal to admit to feeling. Dickinson enunciates these lines with relish, a biting emphasis that feigns indifference. But consider his character’s context: he can’t move away from home, he and family being in the immediate stages of unarticulated grief; his only consistent friends are not those who will ever ask how he is; any and all opportunities, in terms of a community, jobs, lovers, shoulders to lean on, all exist elsewhere in the city. Of course Frankie turns inward and of course Dickinson has to perform this role in as interiorised a manner as possible.

Dickinson’s recessive performance style is a good way into how Hittman’s negative capability allows her to felicitously handle the best part of a narrative filled to brim with negative affects. Concealment, shame, uncertainty, embarrassment: while these are potential aspects of any life, they are not attributes or feelings afforded much of a premium in a Pride-saturated queer culture. But Frankie is blocks away from this. He learns as much during a conversation with Simone: “Two girls can make out and it’s hot, but when two guys make out, it’s gay,” he’s told. So later, when talking with a possible partner, he admits that “I don’t really think of myself as gay.” The word becomes socially loaded with homophobia. Heather Love, in her book Feeling Backward, provides a useful way of thinking about this kind of gesture of refusal, and more panoramically, about negative affects in queer lives. Love writes: ‘Backward feelings serve as an index to the ruined state of the social world; they indicate continuities between the bad gay past and the present; and they show the inadequacy of queer narratives of progress.’ [1] This is where Hittman’s stores of negative capability come in. Although Frankie suffers in the film, usually in silence, amassing feelings he doesn’t know what to do with, Hittman (until the film’s last third) does not undermine these or write them off as mistaken: she takes them seriously, dramatising a space in which Frankie can be unsure. Frankie looks uneasy during his first nighttime beach hookup, and the man turns to him: “You seem really unsure.” Frankie’s face, lit with a harsh frontal light like the flash in his mirror, assumes a quizzical shape. He responds: “So what if I am?”

Frankie’s uncertainty, his searching desire, informs the visual style of Beach Rats. Hittman and cinematographer Hélène Louvart opt for a camera that’s hand-held and holding close to its subjects, moving at times with a free-floating indetermination. Since the film reflects Frankie’s point-of-view, it’s fair to surmise that the camera’s movement, its readiness to shift from object to body-part and back again, is like the drift of Frankie’s attention: the camera fastens onto what Frankie, at that moment, desires. While out with his friends, Hittman and Louvart fix upon the boys’ midriffs; at the barbershop, the camera hones in on the barber’s stubble. The frequent employment of long lenses, to siphon off the rest of the world from the part(s) being attended to visually, is reminiscent of the films of Claire Denis and her cinematographer Agnès Godard: the sensuous camerawork, which approximates desiring glances, of Beau Travail, Friday Night, and 35 Shots of Rum particularly seems important as a comparison. (The rhythm of the handball games owes a great deal to the training montages in Beau Travail specifically.)

Louvart’s camera places a special emphasis upon the work of hands. And this is revealing. From the first meeting with his friends enroute to Coney Island to the last plea from Frankie’s mother to talk to her, Beach Rats catalogues the ways that hands suggest, provide, deny, encourage, and perform intimacy. Here’s a selective repertoire: clasping embraces between friends; clenched fingers passing cigarettes; hiding eyes with splayed fingers; full-handed slapping of the ball during handball; popping open bottles of pills; grabbing a flank of flesh during sex; gently caressing the back of a partner’s head before sex; pushing someone away; fingers’ twitching indicating impatience; left-clicking a mouse to find a select a new chatroom; and finally, because most important, holding another’s hand. Between holding his father’s hand the last time and seeing his sister holding hands with her boyfriend, this simple act assumes a great deal of significance in the film’s discourse on intimacy. Roland Barthes shows why:

A squeeze of the hand—enormous documentation—a tiny gesture within the palm, a knee which doesn’t move away, an arm extended, as if quite naturally, along the back of a sofa and against which the other’s head gradually comes to rest—this is the paradisiac realm of subtle and clandestine signs: a kind of festival not of the senses but of meaning. [2]

This ‘paradisiac realm,’ this ‘festival,’ is exactly the kind of space or event that Frankie cannot yet enter into or attend: hence his watchful eyes wherever he spies a pair of hands enjoined.

2016/2017 was a good time for queer movies about negative affects. Beach Rats appeared on the festival circuit not too long after Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, a film with its own stores of confusion, denial, and shame, which eventually opens into intimacy; likewise, God’s Own Country, directed by Francis Lee, was released in 2017 as well, a film whose initial coldness and rancour eventually gives way into emotional and romantic vulnerability. These endings, and the feelings they inspire and house, don’t supplant the affects contained within the main body of the narrative: they are given meaning by their entire shape, by one’s relationship to the other, by their simultaneity. But even then, Beach Rats is the odd one out of this trio. There’s no resolution to the film; Frankie’s uncertainty is coded into the end of the narrative, which is itself uncertain.

Plainly: I loathe the ending of Beach Rats. The entire final half hour turn to extreme contrivance throws me. The problem is this: clicking through the Brooklyn Boys pages again, Frankie comes across Jeremy (Harrison Sheehan, who I think he breezed past on one of his earlier visits to the site), the first person his age he’s spoken to on there. Jeremy has weed and offers to drive to Frankie. While Frankie goes to meet him, he bumps into his pals, and does something wholly inconsistent with his behaviour before this point. Asked if he has drugs, he hesitates, and claims that he pretends to be gay while using Brooklyn Boys in order to score weed. Ridiculous! Maybe this is an elaborate bit of brinkmanship on Frankie’s part, maybe there’s a slight thrill in how close he comes to telling them what’s real. Whatever the cause, they meet Jeremy, who flees when he senses, quite rightly, that something is amiss. The boys go to Frankie’s to find another man on the website. Donna throws them out, not before Jeremy messages again to see if he and Frankie can rearrange. And here’s where it all falls to shit.

Up to this point in the film Hittman has been looking Frankie right in the eyes; the director has been engaging with the character on his own terms: those of non-disclosure, negative affects, sexual experimentation, and emotional confusion. From here on out the film ill-advisedly enters the territory of the cautionary tale. Frankie meets Jeremy; they drive to the beach. Once there they walk to the sand, and although Frankie is more pent-up than usual (aware of what might transpire), there’s a loose connection between the two, or at least there’s more of one with him than with any other man he’s met from the site. The friends appear. Frankie pleads with Jeremy to hand over his weed. He refuses and runs; the friends give chase. They choke him, and once the weed is found, knock him unconscious as he falls in the water.

The way Hittman suddenly hits the pedals on the drama in this fashion lacks the directorial assurance the rest of the film demonstrates in profusion. This turn of events makes the narrative assume a force of rectitude, a moralising aura: there’s no way to witness how events conclude here and not place the blame on Frankie in some way; at the very least for his harebrained lack of foresight in bringing his hidden life so nearly to the attention of his homophobic buddies. A notion in some of the writing about Beach Rats has it that this was inevitable. K. Austin Collins has a point about the ending, in his review for The Ringerwhen he writes, ‘it played like a logical, if unforeseeable endpoint to what was lingering all along.’ This is true in terms of the scenario, but it’s both the chaos of the scene’s staging and the moral weight it exerts on Frankie which rankle for me: there’s a decisive cruelty to this being both his fault and out of his control, especially considering the way he tries to mitigate the situation.

Beach Rats sensitively and intelligently carves out a cinematic space for Frankie to be uncertain, to feel what needs to be felt, to bristle against his surroundings and note what they cannot provide him. Until it doesn’t: until it introduces, through this overdetermined ending, more than a hint of censure within A Great Warning. One way of thinking about the film in light of this is through the director’s assertion, made in an interview with Violet Lucca, that ‘Beach Rats is not a coming-of-age story or a coming-out story. I think about it as coming to consciousness about who you are, which can be a painful process for people.’ Eliza Hittman’s other features to date—It Felt Like Love, about another Brooklynite teenager coming to terms with her sexual desires; and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, about a young woman who travels from Pennsylvania to New York to undergo an abortion—fit rigorously within this category of ‘coming to consciousness’ films. Beach Rats fits, but only because of the abrupt power of the ending, which enacts a second grief upon Frankie. It’s played as though only a burst of violence such as this could bring him to realise that something needs to change: only a cataclysm could open up the space for a transformation.

In its favour, this idea does cast a forlorn spell over the film’s terminating images of Frankie walking around Coney Island, slightly hurried and all alone, watching the fireworks fizzle out. But I’m still uncomfortable with the general thrust here (not a useless reaction by any measure), not only because it compromises the film’s careful rhythms and sympathetic gaze, but because, as I see it, this sort of thinking tends towards a notion that Frankie, and many queer people like him, are “doing it wrong.” Whereas I’m inclined to feel that there are as many kinds of queer lives as there are queer people to lead them. So, after this nighttime excursion beneath a flashing sky, Frankie’s desire might remain concealed, or he might cast off any concealment, or he might appear bearing any number of shadings or gradations between these two points. For one thing, give him space—but more essentially: give him time. 

[1]: Heather Love: Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard University Press: 2007), p.27.

[2]: Roland Barthes: A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (Vintage Classics: 1979), p. 67. Translated by Richard Howard.

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