Two movies into a promising career, Eliza Hittman has already developed a significant vision of restless urban youth troubled by their emerging sexuality and a society that hinders their development. Her feature-length debut, 2013’s “It Felt Like Love,” focused on the bumpy trajectory of an introverted teenage woman exploring her urges with dangerous results; with the markedly similar “Beach Rats,” Hittman brings the same tropes to the plight of a young man in a film that has the precision of a great short story and the uneasiness of body horror. Even as its plot suggests more traditional coming-of-age dynamics, the filmmaker doesn’t retread familiar territory so much as reinvent it.
Both eerie and exciting, “Beach Rats” finds its closeted protagonist hiding his gay dalliances from his masculine buddies against a grimy Brooklyn backdrop. His unnerving experiences take place against an uneven series of circumstances and occasional plot holes, but with an energetic set of young actors liberated by Hittman’s jittery naturalism, the movie remains a gripping drama throughout — a combination that speaks to the director’s emerging aesthetic.
Quite possibly the best movie set in Coney Island since “Little Fugitive” in 1959, “Beach Rats” is another gritty tale of young people adrift in the crowded scene. The story revolves around Frankie (British actor Harris Dickinson, adopting an inner-city accent in an astonishing big-screen debut), who hides away in his cramped bedroom scanning the internet for gay hookups when he’s not roaming the beach with his thuggish friends doing drugs.
The nearly wordless opening sets the scene for a visually driven tale in which Frankie avoids his chaotic household — where his father is on the verge of dying from cancer — in favor of troublemaking on the streets with a merry gang copy-and-pasted from Larry Clark’s “Kids.” Of course, Frankie’s double life haunts him wherever he goes, and when he runs into bedroom issues with a feisty woman he picks up at a fireworks show named Simone (a fierce Madline Weinstein), it’s clear that he can’t hide his secret forever.
At times, Hittman overplays Frankie’s mounting urges (he casually strokes an image of Jesus’ naked body at church) and the grim mood that envelops his eventual clandestine hookups stifles the sense that he’s finding any genuine release. But that’s part of his problem: Instead of confronting his desires, he keeps it in a private box where no light can get in. Picking up on the signs, if not putting them all together, Simone diagnoses the problem in blunt terms: “You need a lot of work.”
She’s not the only concerned party. Frankie regularly copes with complaints from his concerned mother (Kate Hodge, stern and believable) and inquiries from his giggly pals about his secretive late-night outings. Hittman turns Frankie’s conundrum into a kind of psychodrama in which the visceral nature of his experiences tell the bulk of the story. She’s aided in large part by the great cinematographer Hélène Louvart. (Her credits range from Wim Wenders’ “Pina” to Agnes Varda’s “The Beaches of Agnes;” she makes her U.S. debut here.) Louvart’s roving camera compliments the tense atmosphere by gliding alongside Frankie’s experiences. During his first gay sexual encounter, with a stranger in the dead of night, the camera gets so close to the undulating bodies that they begin to blur.
As a meditation on contemporary sexuality, “Beach Rats” has a kinship with French director Alain Guiraudie’s erotic queer thriller “Stranger By the Lake,” and in some sense is its American counterpart. Both movies deal with the fears surrounding clandestine male sexuality and the fleeting solace of finding a private release for repressed desires. One striking image — obvious, but effective — finds a naked Frankie shortly after one tryst wandering into the water surrounded by darkness.
That’s ultimately the essence of “Beach Rats,” as Frankie roams from hotel rooms to parks in random hookups that set the stage for a jarring finale in which he makes an awkward attempt to unite his competing worlds. Yet even as “Beach Rats” hovers in Frankie’s troubled perspective, Hittman’s screenplay is riddled with wry observations about sexual identity as it’s understood through her characters’ vernacular. “Usually the guy has protection,” Simone says when Frankie takes her home for the first time. “What year is this?” he asks. And when he coyly attempts to gauge her thoughts on his true feelings, she asserts that “when girls make out, it’s hot, but when guys out, it’s gay.” Alas, poor Frankie can only gaze into the distance and dream. Dickinson’s tough exterior belies a tender side that makes his performance one of the most striking breakouts in ages; he’s the key ingredient that carries the movie’s basic premise from start to finish.
In fact, Frankie’s so well defined that it comes at the expense of pretty much everyone else. His peers are thin caricatures of closed-minded bullies, and his girlfriend primarily functions as a plot device. Once “Beach Rats” makes Frankie’s problem clear, it cycles through some of the same circumstances a few times over. In less effective hands, that might make “Beach Rats” into a slog. But Hittman’s such a confident filmmaker that the story’s repetitive qualities evoke the turmoil of Frankie’s life: Incapable of reconciling his desires with the limitations of his world, he’s trapped in an endless loop.
“Beach Rats” premiered in U.S. Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.