Thursday, March 23rd, 2023

Rats Never Smile

Beach Rats

Written and Directed by Eliza Hittman

Premiered January 23, 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival
98 min.


Review by Stephen O. Murray

December 18, 2017.

Written and directed by Eiza Hittman, Beach Rats (2017) follows a lanky Brooklyn [Gerritsen Beach] slacker, Frankie [Harris Dickinson] through part of a summer of ennui and sexual confusion.

Though the title is plural, the other three guys he hangs out with are totally undeveloped characters. For that matter, so is his younger sister, Carla [Nicole Flyus], whose incipient sexuality makes Frankie uneasy.

He does not think of himself as gay, yet he hooks up with guys (all older than he is) online and on the streets, while sort of trying to have a sexual relationship with a warm and pretty girl who has a job, Simone [Madeline Weinstein]. I don’t know why Simone likes him and exerts herself to seduce him. He doesn’t like himself and doesn’t care about the men with whom he has sex, either. He feels a twinge bad when one is beaten and robbed by his slacker companions (several times he denies that they are “friends” of his, and I believe him; none of them has a girlfriend or makes any moves on any woman during the course of the movie).

OK, Frankie’s father dies of cancer early in the movie, providing some reason to feel numb and sad, though there is little evidence that they had much of a bond. Frankie’s mother, Donna [Kate Hodge], is a sympathetic character who doesn’t know what to do with her son’s anomie, though she knows the guys he hangs out with are bad news.

The boys smoke a lot of cigarettes, and marijuana whenever they can get it, and Franie has pilfered some of his late father’s opioids. There are also a few lines of coke and doses of alcohol. As in watching Mudbound, I knew something bad was going to happen. When it did, it was not as horrific or as prolonged as the horror in Mudbound, though also not providing a turning point for the lost souls (WWII veterans in the case of Mudbound). Frankie is as fucked up and unemployed at the end as he was at the beginning… and again watching fireworks. Simone wisely decides that having a relationship with Frankie is more work than it could be worth, so the beard he gained is lost over the course of the movie.

I guess it is interesting that the fetishistic gaze at young men in tank tops or bare-chested is female. Does that mean that this portrait of a closeted/conflicted young man is not a “gay movie”? Hittman does not seem to me to understand Frankie, though she doesn’t provide any interiority to Simone or the other female characters, either. They at least have some variety of facial expressions, whereas Dickinson always looks despondent and speaks in a monotone. (He is British, btw, though no British accent was discernible to me.)

One thing I wondered is why Frankie did not monetize his physical assets (that is, charge for sex). He’s not aware of the possibility? Even when he sees a roll of bills in the ashtray of one of his pickups?

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.