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Review: Beach Rats – “A compelling journey”

If I had to pick just one reason why you should check out yet another coming of age drama dealing with self-discovery, sexual repression and social issues, without hesitation I would mention the incredible, stunning performance by newcomer Harris Dickinson. Beach Rats rests on his athletic shoulders as he’s practically in almost every frame and that’s not an easy task when it’s your feature film debut and you’re a Londoner pretending to be a Brooklyn kid.

The challenge I’m talking about, however, isn’t a mere linguistic one. Dickinson promptly passes that kind of test the moment he opens his mouth and that doesn’t happen much across the film’s tight 90 minutes, which brings us to why he leaves such a long-lasting impression in the viewers after credits roll. His inspired turn showcases an innate talent and an impressive command of his craft. He is able to convey a wide emotional range and portray the character’s internal struggle vividly with so little said but with such a nuanced body language and a mask of pain and self-doubt on his face that it’s impossible not to feel for him.

With Beach Rats, writer/director Eliza Hittman returns to explore the multifaceted issues of directionless youth in Brooklyn, after earning critical acclaim with her 2013 debut It Felt Like Love. This time around though, she switches the point of view to a male protagonist and chooses to focus on the pitfalls of society’s obsession with hyper masculinity.

The result is an uncompromisingly raw look at a specific moment in the life of Frankie (Dickinson), the inarticulate protagonist and aimless teenager who spends the hot Brooklyn summer wandering around the “hood” with his thuggish trio of friends. If only they knew that when Frankie is not hanging out with them he’s online, looking for sex with older men.

Hittman immediately paints the bleak picture behind Frankie’s unhealthy summer as he’s coping with a terminally ill father dying at home. When the man indeed passes away, the boy’s unraveling takes full shape as he begins to actually meet the men he has found online. Needless to say the cruising ventures he gets himself into are of the shallow kind and dealing with everything becomes even more complicated when Frankie meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein) during the 4th of July’s fireworks in Coney Island and the two start dating.

The girl actually proves to be the only grounded and aspirational character in this group of disoriented young adults and Frankie genuinely likes her. He’s not using her like some sort of “beard” although her presence inevitably helps him deflect his friends’ attention when he disappears to pursue his exploring. Truth is Frankie doesn’t know who he is or what he wants but at least he’s honest enough to openly admit that, amongst the few words he seldom utters.

Despite the technology on display setting the story in the present, Beach Rats purposely feels suspended in time as the Brooklyn born and based filmmaker admittedly wanted to capture the sense of a place that feels remote and isolated from the liberal progressive world of Manhattan. The gorgeous grainy 16mm film cinematography contributes to create this sense of timelessness, of a place you can’t escape from, which amplifies Frankie’s internal struggle. He is stuck within his own mind, trying to make sense of life and figure out who he really is. Don’t expect however clear answers from Hittman. She wasn’t interested in telling a conventional story with a typical resolution but rather explore a specific time in the life of this character.

The filmmaker wanted to focus on the internal conflict of a kid living on the fringe, part of a dying middle class in a socially challenged area where certain realities are not an option. But this isn’t really a coming out film, it’s a character study that tries to dig deep into the complex psyche of a young man who doesn’t know what he wants from life and keeps putting off confronting himself, hiding behind a mask, unable to communicate with his loved ones. And once again, society’s perception of masculinity is the center of it all, weighing on his fragile mind, especially when his father dies and he’s supposedly the man of the house but eludes any sort of relationship with his mother and younger sister.

After winning the Directing Award in the US Dramatic competition of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Beach Rats has just received two Independent Spirit Awards nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Male Lead, which couldn’t be more deserved. The look of the film alongside the minimalistic but effective score make in fact for a haunting experience, brought to life by Harris Dickinson’s breakthrough performance. Beach Rats is a compelling journey within the emotional depths of a young man’s formative time in life, beautifully observed with a level of authenticity that only great art-house cinema can provide.

Beach Rats is out in the UK cinemas and on VoD from November 24th.

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