Ever since Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr fell into a passionate embrace on the beach in From Here to Eternity, filmmakers have been enamored with all the romantic possibilities that exist between the sand, crashing waves, a never-ending horizon. Except for those crafting queer films, that is.
Increasingly, beaches have become places of torment in films like the French drama Stranger by the Lake and Australian drama Drown. Unfortunately, Beach Rats follows in those footsteps, betraying its meditative, dreamlike atmosphere for a climax that settles on cliché and histrionics.
The latest film by director Eliza Hittman has been lauded for its bold portrayal of a closeted Brooklyn teenager's coming of age, and it certainly is impressive from a directing standpoint. Beach Rats is at its best when it explores the mundaneness of masculinity and its unintentional effects on those who encounter it. Through its exploration of its Brooklyn milieu and the friendship between its male characters, it’s not a film that sets out to deliver its message with anvils—at least at first. The gay coming-of-age film has been done to death, yet Beach Rats breathes life into the genre with Hittman’s masterful and tender direction, and lead Harris Dickinson’s acting takes the material to memorable heights as Frankie, the closeted teenager at its center.
But Hittman and the actors are working with a cold script that leaves you feeling empty long after you’ve left the theater. It’s understandable, since despite the beauty of its crafting, Beach Rats is yet another dour, depressing film about the life of a gay adolescent. In an interview with Kyle Buchanan at Vulture, Hittman explained that she and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins developed their scripts in tandem during a fellowship (albeit without knowledge of one another’s material) and compared their films: “[Jenkins’] is safer and it’s beautiful and it’s restrained and it’s deserving of all of its accolades. Mine is a little bit riskier and more provocative and less friendly. I thought I would always be a little bit in its shadow as a nastier version of the same conflict.”
I’ve argued that filmmakers should be able to tell any story they want, like Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, but here Hittman seems ignorant of the genre she’s stepped into. The majority of queer storytelling, sadly, focuses on the depressing aspects of coming out—the claustrophobia that comes with leading a double life, and how that veil of masculinity threatens your life and those around you. Furthermore, the coming-of-age story of a young gay white male is hardly riskier than telling one with black protagonists that embraces a message of hope. There’s absolutely nothing safe about portraying two black men in love with one another on screen, particularly when you compare it to Frankie’s struggle in Beach Rats, which mirrors films like Mysterious Skin, American Beauty, Brokeback Mountain, and more.
Furthermore, it’s not dissimilar from the aforementioned Drown, also exploring masculine beach bravado. The 2015 film, adapted from the play Burnt by Stephen Davis, tells the story of Phil, a gay man who comes out to his hypermasculine lifeguard friends and becomes the target of homophobic Len Smithy, who bullies him, beats him up, and eventually rapes and tortures him on a beach. Granted, it’s a film much more interested in overt forms of toxic masculinity than Beach Rats is, but when it reaches a conclusion that ends in death and mayhem, it feels earned—unlike the male characters of Beach Rats turning from ennui to violence.
Hittman’s intentions are clear: to depict the natural outcome of toxic masculinity, no matter how innocuous it may seem at first, but the climax of Beach Rats left me cold and angry. As a film, it doesn’t merely condemn Frankie’s lies and drug addiction, it places a more effeminate gay man (a New Yorker in his twenties who drives from Manhattan to hook up with Frankie) who isn’t closeted into his crosshairs and lets him become Frankie’s victim. When Frankie returns to the beach, he looks for salvation from the sea but he deserves none of it.
It’s somewhat reminiscent of another film that fails with good intentions: Kathyrn Bigelow’s Detroit. That movie depicts a horrific racial incident that occurred at the Algiers Motel in 1967, but the searing brutality of the film renders its message mute. It’s no different than watching a cellphone video of a police officer shooting an unarmed black man. In Beach Rats, Hittman does the same by introducing a character whose torment exists merely for Frankie’s journey. It’s no different than a villain murdering a superhero’s girlfriend or a serial killer cutting off Gwyneth Paltrow’s head: Someone has to be sacrificed for us to empathize with our protagonist, and it’s an altogether regressive take on closeted gay men. It’s bold storytelling for sure, but there must be more than this nihilistic queer life.