From her early shorts, including 2011’s “Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight,” (linked here) Eliza Hittman has been a director with a sense of place and space, but more emphatically of the human form and the fleeting facial gesture: her gaze both sculpts and heightens. Her heightened sense of beauty came to greater notice with her first feature, 2014’s “It Felt Like Love,” capturing a fourteen-year-old girl’s slide into a hot Brooklyn summer and sexual envy of her best friend’s exploits. Hittman’s piercing, even haunting “Beach Rats” takes up the emerging yet submerged passions of vulnerable nineteen-year-old Coney Island kid Frankie—Harris Dickinson, rippling with mysterious flashes of mood—who chats (but only chats) with older men online while palling with his interchangeable male buddies. “I don’t know what I like,” he confesses. Frankie branches out to flirtation with a nineteen-year-old woman, and later with other young men. Sound and image: Hittman understands that is the swim that can drown the best of us in our most driven instants, trembling in crisis. Hélène Louvart’s 16mm cinematography is richly precise yet impressionistic, akin to the fierce presence of the bodies captured in Claire Denis and Agnès Godard’s 1999 masterpiece, “Beau Travail.”
The camera darts, arrives at greater precision, at an instant, an elusive instant, again, again. “Beach Rats” is fixed on the confusion of self, rather than what could be reductively viewed as a coming-out/coming-of-age archetype. Standard question at that age: Who am I to anyone, even, especially myself? Hittman, unlike, say, Larry Clark, is engrossed in how her characters situate themselves in new locations, fresh identities, emotional ambiguities, rather than gathering the material of her personal fixations.
“Frankie’s an inarticulate nineteen-year-old who is slowly coming to consciousness about who he is,” Hittman says in the film’s press kit. “For me, what was at the crux of the character was that he kind of knows but doesn’t know. He’s clinging onto his indecision; His answer for everything is ‘I don’t know.’ I think that’s very typical for a guy that age who is kind of incapable of saying anything about how he’s feeling.” “Beach Rats”’ depiction of the power of yearning, the fear of and shiver of danger, and the force of male repression is different from Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” but is of equal moment and fragrance. It’s a thrill when any director emerges with a curiosity about the mystery of the instantaneous gesture and the talent to be never less than evocative. Hittman won for best directing at Sundance 2017. With Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Erik Potempa. 97m. (Ray Pride)
“Beach Rats” opens Friday, September 1 at Arclight and Landmark Century.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.