Film Spotlight: 'Beach Rats' Explores Teenage Angst In This Bold New Drama

Film Spotlight: 'Beach Rats' Explores Teenage Angst In This Bold New Drama

The Sundance film showcases one teen's struggles with being gay.

The Sundance film showcases one teen's struggles with being gay.

Text: Nadja Sayej

New York filmmaker Eliza Hittman’s feature film Beach Rats—which won best directing at Sundance—is officially out in theatres. The film was inspired by a selfie director, Hittman saw online of a teenager looking for love. Set in Brooklyn, it follows the life of Frankie (British actor Harris Dickinson) as a Coney Island “beach rat,” and all the trouble he gets up to. From sexual confusion to robbery, he suppresses his own homosexuality. With days spent smoking at a vape bar, a quiet trap soundtrack and snorting painkillers, the story shows how one young man secretly moonlights as a sex monster at a cruising beach. In a recent interview, Hittman explains how the film came about and why she’s tentative about resolved endings.

What was your approach to directing this film?

When I’m coming up with a film, I spend a lot of time in the world where the story takes walking around, observing spaces, talking to people and listening. When I was working on Beach Rats, I spent a lot of time around a handball court in Manhattan Beach Park watching guys play and thinking about how they interacted and their physicality. Similarly, I spent time on the Coney Island boardwalk during the fireworks which is a place where all these kids hang out and also in a parking lot where a lot of cruising takes place and in both places observed this different rituals and patterns of behavior taking place.

Is it true this film was inspired by a photo? If so, where did you find it and when?

It is true, while I was making my first film, “It Felt Like Love,” which also featured a bunch of these guys some the same area of Brooklyn, I came across an image on Facebook that ultimately served as an inspiration for “Beach Rats.” It was a picture of one of those guys took of himself standing in front of mirror and you could see his phone and the flash from the camera.

How did that influence the role of the character Frankie?

There was this tension between hyper-masculine and homoerotic that the picture so clearly illustrated and that is think is such a huge part of the character and his conflict in the film. He had his shirt off and a cap on, which sort of obscured his eyes. It looked like he was going to pull down his shorts and take a picture. I was also thinking a lot about those guys from my first film and how isolated by class-wise those neighborhoods are and how they have a long history of violence that erupts when you introduce any otherness into an isolated group. They’re farther from transportation and they don’t have a lot of opportunity. Those were the things I was thinking about when I started to develop Frankie’s character.

Why did you want a character that was so confused and unresolved?

Well part of it is that I’m hard on myself as a writer and I don’t know that I am so confident in writing endings! But also I just like realistic stories about people and those types of stories don’t really have clean or resolved endings.

Why was the shooting location and spirit of New York important to be in this film?

I grew up in a neighborhood called Flatbush and my parents still live there in the house I grew up in. I live nearby in a neighborhood called Kensington now. My grandfather ran a boys’ club in the East Village for 40 years, New York is deeply ingrained in my life and my worldview. I also went to high school and spent a lot of time growing up in the neighborhoods where my movies take place and I want to show people these neighborhoods that you wouldn’t see in typical indie films and represented these isolated places to where certain classes have been pushed and where ideas like “coming out” feel impossible and might not be accepted with the progressive attitude you might associate with Brooklyn as it is broadly understood today.

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