REVIEW – “Beach Rats” Captures Old-School Summer’s Innocence in a Modern Setting

by Joe Hammerschmidt

Early summer’s festival darlings turn into early autumn arthouse gold quite fast, one often can’t notice it happening. You’re not paying enough attention, you’ll miss its charms. Up-and-coming director Eliza Hittman follows up her first feature It Felt Like Love with an equally tart tale of blossoming love and self-exploration that, like summer, arrives quickly, ends quicker, and leaves haunting memories of a life well lived.

Beach Rats, finally debuting for a formal theatrical run in Seattle this weekend after a pair of showing during SIFF in May focuses its lens on America at its simplest, its most innocent. In a moment of our society where the value of “love” incorporates more than one meaning, so too does this representation of how we’re meant to challenge our own description of the word before it implodes upon itself.

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is your almost-average American young adult facing a crisis of identity. Amidst the backdrop of the Brooklyn boardwalks in the lazy days of a bygone summer, the eventual man is simply looking for an escape from the lower points of his life: his own drug habit, a dying father, and family bonds that may be otherwise nonexistent.

He’s a rebel of sorts, confiding in off-kilter debauchery with friends, and at-home webcamming with anonymous older men. Yet his aimless-yet-well-meaning confusion only buries him deeper into trouble the moment he falls for same-age Simone (Madeline Weinstein), and threatens to catch up with him the longer he waits to spill the beans. What starts as purposeless flirting, grows into the film’s pivotal forward motion. The end resolution so reliant on the will-he/won’t-he Frankie is facing, an all-too-familiar emotion Hittman excels at presenting on-screen with a quiet fury and a postcard-like pastiche, shot with flair by Hélène Louvart (Dark Night).

Atop of the romantic struggles, and the rather childish drug addiction, Frankie, as aforementioned, is a tortured soul in the eyes of those closest to him, sister Carla (Nicole Flyus) and mother Donna (Kate Hodge). He pushes too far back whenever they get too close to trying to reach out and look for answers. And as expected, with their patriarch unable to bounce back from a detrimental, no surprise their family, as they once knew it, cannot stay glued together, no matter what can be tried to hold it in place.

Frankie, therefore, is that glue that ignores common sense while trying to make sense of himself, much like newcomer Dickinson who holds the film together just by his own curiosity. A kid growing up in the less perfect of circumstances, seeking that perfection again, and going to great extremes to ensure that. Beach Rats works very much the same way in its story structure; it won’t stop til there’s no time left to establish its cause and action, the two racing against each other for dominance. The film succeeds by allowing both to burn out in the closing minutes and settle for foreshadowing many youths’ own vying for self-acceptance, with director Hittman fulfilling a highly deliberate goal. In capturing one young person’s idyllic coming-of-age struggles, she approaches the same quirk of society and how it must adapt to avoid as less pain as possible. We may not be looking at the most positive-approaching film in 2017, but it’s among the more grounded and personal. (B+)

Beach Rats opens today, exclusive run at SIFF Cinema Egyptian; rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language; 95 minutes.