Words by Catherine Pearson
It’s time to get Call Me By Your Name out of your head. Seriously, do it now. Goodbye gorgeous love story in the Italian sunshine, hello joyless sex in a Brooklyn forest. Some film fans have been hoping that Beach Rats will live up to the Call Me By Your Name hype, but really it couldn’t be more different. It’s about a young gay man and there’s quite a lot of skin on show and, right there, the similarities end. You’re a million miles away from romance here.
Frankie, played by the stunning Harris ‘did I just die and go to gay heaven’ Dickinson, lives with his parents and sister in their small New York home. His father lies in a hospital bed in their living room, unresponsive on a respirator and cared for by the family. While Frankie’s mother (Kate Hodge) tries to keep the family together at this difficult time, Frankie’s younger sister is dealing out a considerable dose of sass to her brother and decides she’s going to get her bellybutton pierced against her mum’s wishes. Frankie, meanwhile, collects his father’s Oxycontin meds for his advanced cancer and skims a few pills off the top before heading down to his basement bedroom.
Frankie’s mates are the kind of boys you wouldn’t fancy crossing in a dark alley. Or, frankly, a light one. Dressed uniformly in wife beaters and gold chains, the group of four scour the neon-lit Coney Island funfair for wallets they can nab and drugs they can smoke.
It’s a joyless, monotonous existence as the lads jump from night to night, from fix to fix, just hoping to get their hands on something that’ll make their lives a little less dull. They have the morals of sewer rats (oh, hello, reference to the film’s title) and, much like the verminous creatures themselves, Frankie’s mum doesn’t want them in the house.
After a night of prowling the funfair, Frankie locks himself in his room and logs on to the ‘Brooklyn Boys’ site. A world of wanking men awaits him as he hides behind his baseball cap and sheepishly admits over his webcam to a naked older man that he doesn’t know what his type is. Before long he’s plucked up the courage to meet some of these men and, for the sake of appearances, has found himself a girlfriend, Simone (Madeline Weinstein). You wouldn’t be alone in rooting for Frankie to find love and the courage to come out, but it’s not quite that simple. It’s a film about getting by, getting high and living a lie.
Beach Rats is a cold film. That’s not to say it fails to bring heart and humour because it is quite clear director Eliza Hittman hasn’t set out to achieve this. The pulsing lights, club beats and bright fireworks deaden the senses as the gang move purposefully through the crowds, scavenging for any freebies that will give them a good time, and the endless plumes of smoke that swirl around the characters’ heads will make you feel like you’re tripping in some sort of depressing fever dream. It’s a bleak life they lead, and it’s bleak to watch it too. At points the film could certainly benefit from a cathartic laugh to enhance the tragic narrative, perhaps some more of the headstrong sister’s attitude or a bit more time spent with the weird ‘Brooklyn Boys’ guy gyrating enthusiastically on the webcam, but clearly brief escapism is not on the menu.
The director has also made the bold decision to use silence and natural, ambient noise in scenes where most films would employ some music. While the soundtrack is dark, melancholy and ominous, when it is absent the silence can be deafening. Only the sound of the wind and the waves can be heard as Frankie takes a stranger down to the beach for a brisk session in the bushes, the near-silence speaking volumes about the secrecy that Frankie has imposed on his lifestyle. There’s also a particularly tough scene in which Frankie and Simone make out and, without the luxury of some accompanying music, all you can hear are the awkward kisses and fumbles as Frankie attempts to get aroused for a girl. “I’m too fucked up”, he explains, embarrassed.
While the narrative is a rough ride, there is fun to be had amongst the frustration and pain of Frankie’s hidden life. Relative newcomer Harris Dickinson as Frankie is a vision of Greek God-level beauty with his muscular body, cute freckles, piercing blue eyes and full lips that could bring you to your knees. Wahey. Highlights include when Frankie is caught topless in a rainstorm while playing handball and when he starts pumping weights in front of a mirror for a selection of sexy selfies that he keeps hidden on his computer. The camera is fixated on his physique, offering plenty of lingering shots on his rippled body, and boy is it a treat… although it’s a minor tragedy when he decided to shave off his cute, floppy hair so that he can look that bit more thuggish.
As the film goes on, so too does the desperation of the gang as their fun descends into full-blown addiction. It’s a terrifying watch as Frankie’s two worlds collide in the group’s hunt for a fix, culminating in a dark act as the group leave behind their life of petty crime for something far more harrowing. It’s a hard watch but you won’t leave in tears; just feeling unsettled at worst and completely numb at best.
Beach Rats is out in selected cinemas in the UK & Ireland from 24th November.