As a film about finding beauty in the depths of ugliness — at least from a visual standpoint — Beach Rats is a success. As a film about, you know, characters, it’s an abject failure. Playing something like a Calvin Klein commercial directed by Harmony Korine, writer/director Eliza Hittman reaches for Claire Denis but ends up with cut-rate Larry Clark. That’s not to say that the film is without any redeeming qualities, but those merits can be almost exclusively ascribed to star Harris Dickinson and cinematographer Hélène Louvart.
Dickinson stars as a closeted teen in Brooklyn, splitting time between partying with his douchebag friends at Coney Island and trolling the internet for covert assignations on a remarkably specific website called “Brooklyn Boys.” His father’s dying of cancer, and a young girl is interested in dating him, but none of this ever really amounts to much in the way of narrative stakes. The majority of the conflict takes place internally, and Dickinson displays some remarkable acting chops in his ability to convey this psychological turmoil through subtle gestures and facial expressions. He also displays every inch of his heavily manscaped anatomy — frequently — which at times seems to supersede story and character in Hittman’s list of priorities.
Louvart’s Super 16 work is remarkable, exploiting the grainy immediacy of the format in tight close-ups and handheld tracking shots that lend a simultaneous sense of veracity and otherworldliness to the film’s location shoots. Amusement park rides and vape bars take on a surreal significance that creates more depth of characterization than anything in Hittman’s script. Pulling off some remarkable low-light shots, Louvart is able to engender a fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité feel to many of her setups that renders the film beautiful even if many of the events on screen are fundamentally ugly.
And that’s not to say that there’s anything remotely ugly about homoerotic sensuality — but whereas Moonlight succeeded on the basis of its heartbreaking characterization of a young man struggling to come to grips with his sexual identity, Beach Rats takes a similar premise, strips out the racial element, and populates its world with inherently unlikable characters. I want to sympathize with Dickinson as a protagonist, but it’s more or less impossible when his only friends are utter trash and he consistently mistreats everyone in his life who doesn’t have a penis.
Hittman is clearly an interesting director with a good eye and the capacity to coax strong performances out of her cast, but as a writer, she needs some work. When Laura Mulvey was talking about the male gaze in the ‘70s, it was a feminist rallying cry against decades of systemic objectification of women at the hands of male filmmakers — and she was absolutely correct. So is the point here that if that objectifying gaze is turned toward other men, it becomes acceptable? Or that men, regardless of sexual orientation, are only capable of viewing the world in terms of disposable objects for their personal gratification? I was left with the lingering feeling that I’ve missed something here. As an exercise in gay eroticism, Hittman’s film works, but as a narrative feature, it leaves something to be desired (if little to the imagination). Opens Friday at the Fine Arts Theatre.