Beach Rats

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...

Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - WORDS joshua win­ning

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.

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