Eliza Hittman’s first feature, It Felt Like Love, was a promising, if familiar Brooklyn-set tale of a teenage girl’s burgeoning sexuality. With, Beach Rats, Hittman revisits the same setting, but with the focus now on a teenage boy’s nascent queer exploration. When the film opens we see Frankie (Harris Dickinson) hesitantly browsing a gay chat-room. “I don’t know what I like,” he says to the older men he talks to, his expression a mix of curiosity, fear and confusion. That certainly can’t be said of Hittman, whose direction here is formally assured, but familiar, trafficking in the kind of frank verisimilitude and “gritty” sensuality typical to so many indie films. If It Felt Like Love played a bit like watered down Catherine Breillat, Beach Rats feels like second-rate Claire Denis, right down to the way the film lingers on the chiseled male bodies of Frankie and his similarly aimless friends with whom he whiles the summer away.
Despite some promising elements, particularly Dickinson’s admirably terse performance, it’s a little dispiriting how closely Hittman sticks to the expected story beats—a girlfriend that Frankie uses to gain social acceptance but eventually rebuffs; his younger sister’s sexual maturation; his terminally ill father and worn down but well-meaning mother—right down to a contrived, last-ditch attempt at some complicating drama. There’s a good, possibly great movie to be made here—and Hittman demonstrates that she has the chops to make it happen. But the lingering impression that Beach Rats leaves with its predictably noncommittal ending is that of unfulfilled potential.
Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2017 | Dispatch 1.