Call Me By You Name, Luca Guadagino’s sun-and-tear soaked Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet-starring gay romance, might have been the breakout film of the Sundance Film Festival—even its recently released trailer earned breathless fawning on social media—but the much quieter, gritter, and, arguably, more authentic Beach Rats, which also made a splash out of Park City, is first out the gate in theaters and makes just as big a case for your attention.
The powerful film, which earned helmer Eliza Hittman the Best Director award at the festival, stars relative newcomer Harris Dickinson as a Coney Island “beach rat,” a local teenager named Frankie who is coming to terms with his sexuality in raw and surprising ways.
During a scorching summer in which the fallout of family tragedy and the bad influence of delinquent friends threatens to suffocate him, Frankie struggles for his identity and begins hooking up with strange men at a cruising beach while simultaneously pursuing an intense sexual relationship with a new girlfriend.
It’s a remarkable entry into the canon of LGBT film, especially those with young lead characters, as it isn’t a coming out story, but a story about sex, desire, and coming to terms with sensuality over sexuality—and all with the extremely vulnerable (and extremely naked) performance from Dickinson as the guide.
“He’s a little too old to come of age, and it’s not quite a coming out story,” Hittman told The Daily Beast. “I guess I think of it as being a film about a character who’s coming to consciousness about who he is. He never really comes out, and it’s about him sort of trying to understand his own desires in a world where there really is no coming out. There’s leaving, and there’s finding a way to live an authentic life elsewhere, but he hasn’t reached that point yet—so it’s about, in a way, coming to understand himself and his desires.”
Hittman’s film was inspired by a photograph, one that is inherently of today’s day and age of digital culture: a dimly-lit selfie taken by a teenage boy meant to arouse its eventual recipient. Out of that photo, British breakout Harris Dickinson was cast, and the model-turned-actor delivers one of the most grueling, sensual, and captivating star turns at Sundance.
“I was completely happy to be part of something that did normalize male nudity,” Dickinson told the Beast. “I was talking to someone the other day who asked about it, and I said to them, ‘Have you seen how much female nudity there is throughout the history of film and TV?’ So yeah, I was comfortable with it, and I’m quite comfortable with my sexuality and my body.”
In this exclusive clip from Beach Rats, which hits theaters August 25, Dickinson’s Frankie engages in some intimate pillow talk with an older man after a motel hook up—including a conversation about gay men's hands that had all the gay journalists who saw the film at Sundance buzzing and measuring their fingers.