Frankie, the star of Eliza Hittman's new coming of age drama, Beach Rats, is a teenager attempting to juggle a private life cruising gay chat rooms with a public life that involves achieving all the desired hallmarks of young masculinity: keeping up with his knucklehead friends and getting a cute girlfriend.
Frankie is a purely fictional character. But the film's portrayal of beachy suburbs is based entirely on Hittman's experience of growing up at the end of a subway line.
"I grew up in the middle of Brooklyn, about five stops from where the movie was shot," explains director Eliza Hittman, when I sit down with her during London Film Festival, where Beach Rats is getting a UK premiere. "It's about living close to the city but really, really far from the city psychologically – it's a bit conservative, it's isolated." These conditions made sense for a character who was trapped in the closet and maybe never going to come out, she explains: "I felt like, based on the psychology of the place, I don't know if this character has the ability to see into the future for himself, even five years ahead."
The result is what she calls "a slice of life" film, meaning Beach Rats doesn't really have a beginning, middle or end, but starts around halfway through and leaves you wondering what could happened next.
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In person, Hittman is charming, petite and apologetic for her jetlag. Beach Rats is the director's second film after It Felt Like Love, an acclaimed indie that honed in on the pressures of performative sexuality for teenage girls, also set in Brooklyn. Hittman says Beach Rats felt like "the natural companion film", a kind of sequel looking at the male experience. The idea even came from shooting It Felt Like Love: "When we were meeting the guys who we street cast for that film I started thinking about where they were from and what their circumstances were. It was a part of Brooklyn called Gerritsen Beach, and the guys from the beach are known locally as Beach Rats. I always thought it would be a great title for a film."
Hittman writes her scripts herself, a process borne out of on-the-ground research, she explains. The plot as well as the characters came from walking around the neighbourhood and meeting people. "A lot of the kids I met have similar backstories, whether it's lost a parent, or how they'd fallen into meth and opiates, and on those same beaches where they hang out during the day there's still a lot of cruising at night," she says. Even Frankie's haunts in the film came from Hittman's strolls around the area, sort of just tracking what kids do. There were bars around Coney Island, an EDM party on a boat and the vape shop that Frankie hangs out in. "It's like an old smoke shop for young people – I'd never seen that in film," laughs Hittman.
There's a lot about Beach Rats I hadn't seen in film. While it could be compared to that other sensitive and lyrically gay coming of age story Moonlight – although Beach Rats has a very white cast – there are also things it does differently to most films within the genre. It delicately depicts what it's like to have to pretend to be straight to someone you're intimate with. It shows the risky business of navigating between online and offline cruising spaces, as Frankie meets with old men in motels and lay-bys. And interestingly, it doesn't particularly show homophobia as an outward force, but rather an inner one – Frankie's shame and secrecy comes from inside of himself, a personal rather than social battle he fails to fully confront.
Perhaps what's most remarkable about Beach Rats, though, is that it does all of this with a sparse dialogue; most of the work is through the image, something Hittman intended, spending a lump of the film's budget shooting analogue. "I always knew what was at the crux of the character was his inability to talk about himself," she explains. "And I wanted to expand that tension around us knowing more about him than he was ever really willing to admit."
When asked whether it was harder to write a gay male character than the female centre of It Felt Like Love, as a female filmmaker, she shrugs. "Yes and no. I feel like I've had friends I've known on the cusp of coming out and what that space is. But it's not really a coming out film, per se. For me, it was more about exploring a character in a world who is never going to come out."
Beach Rats was street cast, meaning that – apart from the character of Frankie, played by the painfully handsome Harris Dickinson, and his reluctant girlfriend, played by Madeline Weinstein – the kids in the film were cast on the streets of Garritsen Beach. "I went to different parks that I knew and I would sit and hang out," says Hittman. "When I didn't have a lot of time to do that work I hired some of my students who were closer in age than me to the kids and I would say, 'There's a park on Brighton 8th Street where kids do basketball all day.' I would write character descriptions and say, 'Find me a kid like this.' They'd make videos of kids and try to get their numbers and seduce them into auditioning. The first days of shooting were always a little clunky, but then they become actors."
As for Dickinson, he sent in an audition tape from east London, where he's from, but did the whole thing in an American accent, meaning Hittman didn't know where he was from when she flagged him. "He sort of tricked us," she remembers. "It was a tough role to cast because it's the leading role, he's in every frame, he has to carry the whole weight of the movie on his shoulders and I was asking for full frontal nudity and things that scared people away." I assume she means the anal sex in the bushes scenes.
At points, the film can look like a fashion editorial with Dickinson the model, and runs the risk of fetishising him. "I didn't expect him to be so chiseled," says Hittman when I put this to her. "I never asked him to take his shirt off in an audition, but it ended up working in its own way, as it felt like this layer of protection he had built around him."
As to be expected of a film as challenging to expectations as Beach Rats, the film's ending is fairly ambiguous, leaving you wanting a second slice of the characters' lives. Hittman admits it was hard to figure the ending out: "I always knew that it was an irreconcilable drama, especially as I was always thinking about what was confining him versus freeing him; that made the ending hard."
The result is a film that's by no means resolute – but that works in its favour in a cinematic landscape where most LGBT protagonists either have to come out to everyone or meet a tragic fate. This was deliberate, but risky, the director concedes. "I think it's similar to It Felt like Love in that some people feel empathy and hope for the character while others just feel cold and angry. It's definitely ambiguous, the pressure and fear around unknowable sexuality."