Narrative and Aesthetic Tensions in Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats
A cis man on MUBI complained (as they often do) that Beach Rats is a hollow movie, one that simply checks off progressive boxes like “female director” and “toxic masculinity” without any real substance. Yet that same cis man didn’t see anything cliche about American Beauty’s ground-breaking suggestion that suburban life is secretly troubled, or the original concept of an older man projecting his frustrations with aging onto a younger woman, or…well, you get the point. I’m trying to be more than just a hater. But I’m frustrated with masculinity’s insistence that it is the final authority on what is “art,” let alone brilliant art, which Beach Rats certainly is.
Directed by It Felt Like Love’s Eliza Hittman, Beach Rats is the story of a closeted queer boy named Frankie growing up in current-day Brooklyn. Amidst the personal tragedy of his chronically ill father, Frankie scours the nearby boardwalk with his delinquent “not friends” as a source of escapism and video chats with older men via a website called Brooklyn Boys, the latter a secret pastime he hides from his cisgender peers. Eventually, Frankie starts meeting these men in local cruising spots for casual sex, although he begins openly dating a young girl, Simone, he meets on the boardwalk as well.
Throughout the film, Frankie’s queer and straight-appearing worlds skirt past each other in a manner that is both relatable and tense. This is most evident in the case of his computer, the portal through which he meets men online, which continually flashes images of both fireworks, under which he met Simone, and ocean waves, the background music to his casual queer hook-ups. At times this close proximity is by his own design, as when he cautiously asks Simone if she’s ever made out with another woman. Women kissing women, she explains, is “hot,” while men kissing men is “just gay.” This example works to highlight how even oppressed people, such as women like Simone, can at times side with the oppressor (i.e., cisgender, or cishet culture).
As the film progresses, the boundaries between these two worlds grow more and more muddled. While his friends are increasingly aware of his contact with queer culture, he maintains a straight-presenting identity, claiming only to associate with gay men in order to get weed. Here the tension heightens, as we see Frankie in a familiar environment (the beach he cruises at) and with familiar people (his “not friends”/peers), and yet the two components don’t seem to compliment one another. If anything, they create a sense of unease, the potentiality of danger, a threat to order and security.
Visually, Beach Rats is subtle yet evocative. From the softer hues of waves rolling onto the shore to the harsher, higher contrast images of both the boardwalk and computer screen at night, it offers an array of aesthetics that somehow manage, based on setting, to appear cohesive. The party scene in particular provides club-inspired lighting that is contemporary and enticing, a fitting representation of the particular sect of youth culture present in the movie.
While Beach Rats is both narratively and aesthetically satisfying, I did pause to wonder about the role of bi-erasure and biphobia in driving the plot along. Is Frankie simply a young gay man in denial or are his marred relationships with women, and his frequent performance failure that accompanies them, symptomatic of a more generalized psychological stress? Would a happier, more open Frankie be able to successfully carry on relationships with both men and women? Can we tell the stories of young gay men without erasing the potentiality of bisexuality? I’d like to believe that just as men don’t have the final say as to what is and isn’t art, homonormativity doesn’t have the final say as to what is and isn’t queer.
By: Alison McPherson