Beach Rats has a lot going for it, most of all its hypnotically vacant lead, Harris Dickinson. With no apparent effort, he communicates his character's internal struggle via sexy, empty blue eyes. The trick is he only seems like a void, a random Brooklyn kid shuffling through the last year of his teens. But in the same way he's pretty on the outside but pretty conflicted within, Frankie's aggressive attempt to recede makes him stand out, and his desire to disappear gives away that there is more to him than his friends could guess ...
Beautifully raw, Beach Rats looks expensive, yet authentically captures working-class Brooklyn interiors, the boardwalk, the beach, the boys.
Never exploitative, the camera does not leer at its mostly lean, shirtless, muscled subjects; the stills are far hotter than the film, which instead feels a lot like watching a cage of tigers at a zoo or a school of sharks in a tank — you're in faint awe of the majesty, but dreading what would happen if the walls were not there.
Frankie has a lot of walls keeping him pacing in ever-narrowing paths — his father (Neal Huff) is dying of cancer in his family's living room, his mome (Kate Hodge) is onto his no-good ways, his kid sister (a subtly hilarious Nicole Flyus) is 13 going on 30, he is increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol to keep from feeling anything, and he cruises a seedy hook-up site in search of middle-aged men to help him decide if he's really, for sure gay.
Enter Simone (Madeline Weinstein), a sexy, seductive local girl who throws herself at what she sees as a beautiful dude with potential, never guessing she really isn't Frankie's type.
Frankie and Simone's awkward attempts at being an instant (and Insta) couple ring true, as does Frankie's timeless frustration with his sexual orientation. Will & Grace helped a lot, but pop culture and even the law's increasing embrace of gay rights doesn't always permeate our country's deeply ingrained toxic masculinity, and Frankie's gang of friends are anything but a good influence.
Beach Rats artfully explores an emotional life that may well be dead-ending, all the while capturing the trappings that created the seemingly inescapable sense of doom that follows a 19-year-old kid who has many more options in life than he is allowing himself to see.
Some things never change. Some people can't.
There are a few conventional choices in Beach Rats, but never from the actors or from the cinematographer. Ultimately, it's a haunting snapshot of adolescence in the absence of privilege.