STEAMY

Sundance Finally Shows Some Hot Gay Sex

It’s no longer just about coming out. It’s about having good sex. A talk with the breakout director and the very hot (and very nude) star of the gritty queer film ‘Beach Rats.’

Courtesy Tayarisha Poe/Sundance Institute

One day after Luca Guadagnino’s sun-and-tear-soaked sweeping gay romance Call Me By Your Name earned a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival, the much quieter, grittier, arguably more authentic Beach Rats premiered.

The film isn’t based on a beloved novel, like Call Me By Your Name, and doesn’t star one of Hollywood’s most conventionally (and blessedly) attractive leading men, in Armie Hammer. But Eliza Hittman’s powerful follow-up to her breakout work It Felt Like Love, the Coney Island-set gay drama Beach Rats, is Sundance’s most powerful, authentic, and, because of that, sometimes infuriating portrait of coming out and modern sexuality.

In a year where Moonlight features heavily in the slate of Oscar nominations, maybe it’s a trend that the personal struggle for sexual acceptance and, finally, the eroticism of gay sexual awakening is in the front seat of storytelling. And with Beach Rats, which lives in a combination of seediness and beautiful teenage wonder, that storytelling is finally getting a little bit of nuance.

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.

And certainly one of the most enticingly naked.

About a teen named Frankie who cruises online gay hookup sites in Brooklyn, Beach Rats is the rare gay drama, and maybe the next wave of queer storytelling, that makes you feel uncomfortable.

That’s not a judgment of Frankie’s questioning—nor the film’s often hot and explicit gay sex.

It’s a celebration of the coming-of-age and coming out story that refocuses on the struggles of identity and masculinity that, similar to Moonlight, rarely gets careful attention in films set in the modern day, which prefer to center on the beauty and catharsis of homosexual awakening. In addition to Beach Rats and Call Me By Your Name, the Sundance debut God’s Own Country also diversifies (and, yes, sensualizes) the canon of gay sex on film.

After Beach Rats’ well-received Sundance premiere, we talked to Hittman and Dickinson about their powerful and unconventional film. (And a lot about sex scenes. If nothing else, Beach Rats has some great gay sex scenes.)

So this film was born out of a photo you saw of a teen boy taking what looked like a dating profile selfie, which is a photo that factors heavily into the movie.

Eliza Hittman: Yeah. I guess I sort of started the process with a generative image, which was an appropriated Facebook photo of a kid from Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn. The guys from Gerritsen Beach are known as “Beach Rats.” It’s a neighborhood slang term for a kid who grew up with access to the water but is also, like, “urban” and “gritty.” It was a photo of a kid in a basement with a baseball hat on, masking his eyes, and his shirt was off. It had an interesting tension of being homoerotic and hyper-masculine, and that was the generative moment of the film: a character reference and where I got the first impulse, I guess, to make and write the feature.

Eliza, you don’t consider this to be a coming out story. How would you describe it then?

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Eliza: Yeah. He’s a little too old to come of age, and it’s not quite a coming out story. I guess I think about 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.

It’s rare to see a piece like this set in the modern day. That “coming to consciousness” that you just described is typically depicted as happening in the past, even if it’s just ten years ago. But it’s rare to see a story about the tension of masculinity and heteronormativity set in the present. What is the challenge of that?

Eliza: Well, I think some of the challenges were when people were initially reading this script. They said, “This feels kind of dated. Do people still cruise?” “Uh, actually, they do.”

You found a cruising spot while shooting, right?

Eliza: There are a lot along the water, along Jamaica Bay. It was a little hard, I think, pre-election to get people to realize that there is still a lot of violence that erupts in an isolated area when you introduce any kind of otherness. I think that, in a way, the themes of the film didn’t feel totally relevant to people when we were trying to make it a year ago. But I think now the film is starting to touch upon things that people are more aware of post-election. So I think I’m trying to figure out why that is, and what it means and what it says.

Harris, as a person who’s of the same age range as Frankie and had a similar upbringing, did you find his struggle, especially with sexuality, to be at all familiar?

Harris Dickinson: Interestingly, just listening to that about cruising, where I live there’s a heavily known spot where people go. It’s kind of tragic that you have to go to these secret dives to have this relationship with someone. I can’t relate to the same struggle of sexuality and identity, but I can relate to being in an area where self-exploration sometimes isn’t an option. Class. Not having the option to come outside of that expectation of masculinity. I can relate to that, for sure.

The three big sex scenes all felt very different. Was there any consideration about how graphic to make them, or the tone of them?

Eliza: I think it was important that they all felt very different, and I think that part of self-exploration and sexuality is having the first experiences and coming to understand what is right for you and what feels good and what is exciting and where you feel comfortable and having a range of experiences.

How would you describe the differences in them?

Eliza: There’s the first one with Simone, which is incredibly vulnerable. That vulnerability manifests itself in a way that’s a little bit hostile. I wanted him to have one on the beach that had this kind of tension between having a fear element and feeling instinctual. Then one in the hotel room, which is incredibly intimate and vulnerable, and where he’s almost most himself. So I think it was important to sort of show a range of experiences, and I think that’s part of life. Having some experiences that are pleasant and some that are intimate. When you’re not with a partner, there’s always a risk element: what is it like to go interact with this unfamiliar body?

What was your thinking in terms of how much sex—thrusting, graphic sex—to show, or how much to even linger on a sexual act?

Eliza: Initially, in the casting, I asked for actors comfortable with full-frontal nudity, and that weeds down the process to a lot to actors, like Harris, who are incredibly brave. So you get a certain type of talent that comes through the door when you ask for someone like that. I think it’s important to sort of normalize male nudity on screen, because women are always naked. And none of the male nudity in the film, I think, is unnecessarily provocative. It’s meant to be everyday. There’s some everyday nudity in the film, as well as in sexual moments.

Harris, you’re going to be asked a lot about those nude scenes and sex scenes. Are you comfortable with it?

Harris: Yeah, no, I was. And hearing what Eliza said, I was completely happy to be part of something that did normalize male nudity. 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.

The conversation will be about how this is “bold” and “brave.” Did it feel like you were doing something like that as you were shooting?

Harris: Not necessarily. I mean, it was all artfully played, and Eliza had a conversation with me before we shot, and we just discussed it. I don’t think I ever thought, “Oh, this is extremely shocking.” I knew Eliza wasn’t interested in, like, making the audience uncomfortable, so that made me comfortable to the highest extent.

I’m sure you’ll also be asked a lot about your own sexuality. Is that something you’re comfortable talking about?

Harris: I think when I read the character, his sexuality wasn’t really a question for me; it wasn’t a deciding factor. It didn’t really matter. Whether he’s gay or not isn’t really a decider. It’s a struggle that a lot of people have to go through, so I can’t really speak for that demographic. I can only try to represent it.

How do you identify, in terms of your own sexuality?

Harris: I’m straight. I have a girlfriend who I’ve been with for a while.

Eliza: I think the politics of casting are so tricky, especially when you’re casting young actors. I don’t know if I felt like, in this role, I was asking the actor how they identified.

Did you ask the actors about their sexual identity when you were casting?

Eliza: I didn’t. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. I think the character is comfortable in his world, you know? In his audition, Harris had these piercing blue eyes looking up at the camera, and there was a toughness and sensitivity, and that was the character. For the Frankie character, he doesn’t know how to say it, so I didn’t know if it was so important in the casting to have somebody who was self-identified.

Did you ever feel any sort of responsibility for how you portray a gay person’s struggle?

Eliza: I wrestled with it a lot. In the end, there are so many films about women I love that are directed by men, and I wanted to go outside my point of view as a woman, and explore a male point of view. In the end, it didn’t feel that remote. I’ve had a range of sexual experiences in my life, all of which are reflected in those scenes. In the end, you take your own experiences and put them into your characters.

Did shooting this change how you feel about sexuality at all?

Harris: You know, I can’t possibly say that I endured the same struggles as someone who’s had these struggles with sexuality. I’ve noticed that I entered the mind frame of it, and tried, so I suppose I put myself in a situation where I was going through the motions, and, yeah, I did learn more about it. Since I was young, I’ve had friends who struggled with sexuality and are now out, in the open, and their parents know and everything, but I’ve seen it—I’ve seen my friends go through it—so it’s not a completely foreign subject; not something I was unaware of as a problem.

What does the film have to say about empathy for someone like Frankie?

Eliza: In a way, the film was playing a little bit with types of misdirection. You think something bad will happen to him if he’s caught, but that’s not the story. It’s sort of about, for me, a kind who… I don’t want to give away the film in the interview, but it’s important for me that there are no good guys and bad guys. It’s a human story about a kid caught between worlds, and not fully knowing how to be himself and accept himself.