A Brooklyn teen struggles with his sexuality in Eliza Hittman’s gorgeous Beach Rats, a gritty drama that takes an unflinching look at masculinity in crisis. Gay Times enters troubled waters to find out more...
In snowy Utah earlier this year, two gay dramas showing at the Sundance Film Festival got audiences’ teeth chattering.
One was the radiantly optimistic retro love story Call Me By Your Name. The other was Beach Rats, a gritty, 16mm coming-of-ager starring a hot young Brit and featuring a potent brew of simmering sexuality and repressed rage. The two couldn’t be more different, and neither could the audience reactions to them.
“I’m still sort of processing the response to it”, admits director Eliza Hittman, who nabbed the festival’s Directing Award but, bizarrely, came under fire from a handful of gay viewers who took exception to the fact that a woman had directed a downbeat male ‘coming out’ story. Happily, Beach Rats enjoyed a far warmer critical reception, and when we catch up with Eliza a few months down the line, she’s in a contemplative rather than combative mood.
“I mean, do men write about women?” she laughs. “Yeah! Men write about gay women, also. I don’t think men ever question or are questioned for exploring female sexuality, and it’s sort of funny to always be asked about it, as if I need a massive excuse other than that I liked the character and was intrigued by him.”
That character is Frankie, a Brooklyn teen spending a work-shy summer smoking weed with his buddies, stealing money from unsuspecting fairground punters, and snorting coke with his new girlfriend. Secretly, though, Frankie also surfs gay chatrooms at night and, when he hooks up with an older guy one evening in the woods, it sparks a change in the teenager’s perception of himself – and those around him.
Written and directed by Eliza, who’s also a lecturer at New York’s Pitt Institute and has just shot two episodes of season two of 13 Reasons Why, the film acts as a mirror image to her first film, 2013’s It Felt Like Love.
That film charted the sexual awakening of a vulnerable teenage girl. “My films explore themes of lost, wayward youth”, she reveals, and while Beach Rats clearly isn’t autobiographical, it was inspired by an earlier script that was.
“There was a point that I’d written something from an autobiographical place, but that seemed like it would cause too much familial disruption!” Eliza jokes, declining to reveal exactly whom that earlier script was inspired by. “I put that project aside but I was still intrigued by some of the issues it addressed. I grew up in an environment with somebody who was struggling to navigate those waters and, thematically, there are things in the film that come from personal experience, but Beach Rats isn’t a first-hand account of something I’ve lived.”
That doesn’t limit the film’s impact, though. Eliza has a gift for capturing teenagers at the brink of adulthood and, in British up-and-comer Harris Dickinson, she found the perfect Frankie. Resembling a cross between Eddie Redmayne and Michael Fassbender, he was working in a London bar, attempting to make it as an actor when he mailed an audition tape to Eliza.
“Part of what was so compelling about his audition was that he didn’t work very hard in it”, the director reveals. “He just set the camera up very close to him, which gave direct access to his eyes. He had this vulnerability but also this ‘still a teenager’ feeling.” Although she was initially resistant to casting a non-Brooklynite in the role (“I was convinced there must be some young Robert De Niro floating around New York City”), Eliza found Harris so “compelling and seductive” that she eventually handed him the role.
It helped that he had no problem stripping off. “Yeah, he is pretty naked in the film”, laughs Eliza. “There’s a pube trimming scene... I like those sort of small moments of human behaviour.” And that’s not all. Harris spends much of the film in various states of undress, whether hitting the beach with his friends or taking selfies in his bedroom mirror. Then, of course, there are the twilight encounters with older men in woods, motels and sand dunes.
And let’s just say that full-frontal wasn’t an issue.
“He was very confident about all of it”, reveals Eliza. “Obviously his agents were, like, ‘What?! You said what?! You’re doing what?!’ But he just had no trepidation or fear about it. He watched my other film and he understood that it was not quite erotic, you know? The scenes were... there was a tension in them and it wasn’t just erotic for the sake of being erotic.”
While Eliza resolved not to research gay Brooklyn culture in preparation for her film (“That’s a world that this character is far from”, she says), she looked at a lot of photography, and in particular the work of Danny Fitzgerald. “He took these erotic, hyper-masculine, homoerotic portraits of Brooklyn gang members in the ‘60s; he was a male physique photographer”, she says. “I was looking at some of those images and thinking about that kind of tension in the male form.”
‘Tension’ is a key word when discussing Beach Rats. It’s a hard-hitting drama tied-up in issues surrounding identity and masculinity. It’s a complex examination of sexuality and shame, told through an unflinchingly intimate lens. And, according to Eliza, anybody who has a problem with a woman directing a gay story can suck it.
“I don’t think I tried to inhabit a gay male voice”, she says. Nevertheless, she’s crafted something troubling, tantalising and utterly compelling.