Beach Rats is the Sundance Award-winning second feature from American writer and director Eliza Hittman. An incredibly raw and emotive film with a dark underbelly, it takes it’s title from a slang term for the rough kids who grew up on the water on the isolated little peninsula of Brooklyn and follows Frankie, a teenager caught between two worlds there: playing ball and chasing girls with his layabout friends; and closeted desires, given air through flirting with men online and meeting them by night on cruising beaches.
Breakout British star Harris Dickinson is phenomenal as the ruggedly beautiful, angst-ridden Frankie, giving a nuanced performance that conveys a complex inner struggle to reconcile the world of heteronormative masculinity he inhabits with his own sexual identity. Hittman’s chosen 16mm camera finds unexpected beauty in the gritty urbanity of Brooklyn while staying so close to Frankie we share each intake of breath. With Beach Rats Hittman realises a fresh and authentic reinterpretation of the coming-of-age drama.
I had the chance to speak Hittman ahead of the film’s premiere at the BFI London Film Festival. She explained her inspiration for the film, her fascination with the coming-of-age genre, and why depicting a young man’s struggle with his sexuality is just one more story to be told.
Thank you so much for speaking with me Eliza. I absolutely love the film – it’s incredibly raw, incredibly emotive. It’s also quite a fresh reinterpretation of the coming of age type film – so what kind of film did you set out to make with this and what drew you to this particular kind of story?
Well I like coming-of-age movies in general and I sort of never get tired of watching them – good ones and bad ones. I’d never written a film about a young guy before so that was part of the intrigue in doing it. Not thinking of it as a coming-of-age story but sort of a coming to consciousness about who he was. And that always involves sort of pain and a realisation. It’s not a beautiful transformative process as people like to hope and imagine that growing up is. There’s always sort of pain involved, sort of realising you’re not what you want to be – so that’s sort of how I approached it and thought about the story. I made another film called It Felt Like Love in 2013 and it explores similar themes and a similar world focused on a young 14-year-old girl. So I thought in making a second feature I would do something that was like a companion and showing similar pressures in a similar area on a young man.
And making that shift from something female-centered to male-centered – what might be the challenges and opportunities of doing that as a female film writer and director?
I don’t know if there were, like, challenges per se. I thought that it was interesting to go into his point of view and think about, you know, there some scenes like the scene with the girl in the bed – as a woman I’d been in a situation with a man who was a bit insecure about his sexuality and lashed out. So it’s sort of funny to write it from the male point of view and shift the identification and the empathy from the audience from the girl to the guy – so I think it’s more of a kind of experiment in a way to explore that point of view.
I mean Harris Dickinson is absolutely phenomenal in the film –
You guys get to claim him, he belongs to you!
Ha ha yes indeed he is a Brit! It does hang quite heavily on his performance. There’s not so much dialogue for him to rest on – so much has to be conveyed through his eyes and quite a complexity of emotion comes through. What was it like working with him? Did he find any of the scenes challenging? How did you get him to tap into this sort of emotion?
I think initially when I was casting him, because he was UK-based I had a lot of anxiety like – can I take someone from another country and really ground him in this world? But I knew from his audition that he was a very kind of “classical” leading man. And it’s not often that one of those just kind of randomly turns up in your audition! So there were very classical compelling features about him – you know the eyes were so vulnerable and that was evident from his audition. And this kind of deep voice that he hadn’t quite grown into was very compelling. So when he came over we’d already cast him but I’d never met him in person before with working together. So I’m not gonna lie, I was a bit nervous as to whether I could really ground him in the place but he did a lot of work independently and hung out with the guys and played ball with them and slowly the character began to take shape. And I think that the pressure of the shoot and the whole experience becomes very emotionally exhausting for everyone working on it, especially when we know where the story is going and that experience shaped the character and wore on him as a person a bit – the pressure and the darkness of the narrative. And I can’t speak for his process because I think that’s part of the beauty of acting – every actor has their own process and it always has a bit of a mystery as to what gets them there. But I think it was a combination of all these forces, the guys that he was spending time with, being dropped into this place, the stress and the exertion of the shooting – it all kind of forms around him. Working with him was very rewarding – a 19-year-old that is such a pro. I was telling everybody that part of what was captivating about him was when we weren’t shooting he was often in the botanical gardens or something. He was kind of an old soul, old man. It’s very impressive to me, a 19-year-old with the professional discipline of somebody who’s been acting for their entire lives.
And so coming around to exploring sexuality in the film. Some of the scenes do get quite gritty and – I think that’s part of the authenticity of the film – yet you also find beauty in some of those moments. How do you see this film in the broader landscape of putting those themes up on the big screen? Homosexual relationships are still a taboo in some parts of our culture, maybe more so in mainstream culture – but it really feels like that’s starting to shift. There’s been the success of Moonlight and a whole host of films coming out this year that really aren’t afraid to jump in and put this on the screen. So how do you see this film fitting in with that broader picture?
I just think there’s room on the spectrum for a lot of different perspectives on sexuality and it’s just sort of one representation of one experience in one part of the world. I haven’t had the chance to see Call Me By Your Name yet and I’m excited to see it.
Yeah I’ve heard. I think it represents one narrative of many. I don’t think we can run out of these stories necessarily because everyone’s experience is so different.
And do you see that cinema has a role to play in broadening people’s perspectives as such?
For sure, for sure. That’s what Moonlight most says to about the relationship between film and sexuality and the kinds of narratives people are hungry to see.
And it feels like the location itself and the aesthetic is really crucial to the film. As we were mentioning earlier, there’s not always so much dialogue in the film yet there seems to be so much going on with these close-ups and the feeling that you are in this part of Brooklyn. So what’s the importance of the aesthetic and the location to you?
I guess when I’m writing – for me writing is not sitting alone in a room with a computer, coming up with ideas. For me, writing is walking through the story on my feet. And I work full time in academia and so for me on the weekends I would just go out and walk through different places and go to stores and just kind of constantly walk through the story as the character. So for me there’s no real location scout on a shoot. For me it’s building in the world as I’m writing the story. And having those physical places for me is really part of the process in such an essential way. So I think it’s like, in a way, I can’t imagine watching a film as an outsider viewer and seeing those choices as for me they were always part of the script as I was writing it, if that makes sense. And I think that there are unconscious choices that are made in picking those places in a way. What the vape shop says about a community, it has a specific colour – there are these unconscious choices made in the places I gravitate to. And then some of the places are somewhat credible, like the cruising beach is really a cruising beach etc etc and not far from that beach are all those party boats. So it’s like when you walk from one place into the next place those ideas filter in. So right, the character could go here, the character could do this – kind of constantly walking through the character’s point of view, their world.
And I think what comes across for me – it’s not just a study of exploring sexuality and finding your identity but it’s also a lot about challenging ideas of masculinity. Because he’s caught between these two worlds where he’s kind of the jock, playing basketball, picking up girls. And then he’s drawn to this completely other side which is still masculine in its own right but perhaps is outside the conventional society he’s grown up in. So how did that play out for you?
I think that was always the concept for the character – being sort of caught between these two worlds. Because there is cruising on that beach at night and that attracts a certain kind of guy. And then there are the kids that hang out on the beach during the day, this other breed of man. For me this character, he doesn’t see an alternative and that’s part of why he’s so trapped.
And I guess in some senses, it doesn’t necessarily come to a conclusion. Without giving too much away, his world can seem full of possibilities but it’s perhaps ambiguous. It kind of reminded me of American Honey?
Well actually in that film, I felt like she was trapped. Like she couldn’t go backwards. But to continue the journey might lead to some place dark.
So what do you think people are going to take away from this character? There are definitely some dark moments in it. He’s having to make life choices all the time – good and bad.
To me, it’s a slice of life film, which captures what we talked about – this kid who is caught between worlds. I think he – without spoiling the film for people who haven’t seen it – his fear around who he is leads him to do things that are not pretty. And he is left to reconcile them and there’s no easy way out of it. I think audiences walk away with different feelings at the end. Some people feel really put off by his lack of moral judgement. Some people empathise and feel he will have a future some place down the road. And other people think he will never find an authentic path, a path to leading an authentic life. For me as the filmmaker, I wanted to leave the audience linger with the character in these moments after this pivotal event feeling as caught and confused. It’s an emotional ending versus a neat plot ending. Because it’s a slice of life film. There are no endings in our lives. We just end chapters, in a way.
In a sense do you see it making any comment in the broader scheme of things? There are themes of poverty there, opportunity, being repressed.
I think there are destructive consequences to living in a world where you have to hide who you are. And it’s not an overtly message-driven after-school special obviously. But that is the feeling the film gives you.
And do you think that’s specific to this world he’s in?
I think it’s specific to his world. But that idea is translatable to other worlds.
For Madeline Weinstein who plays Simone, it was her first big film is that correct? How was it working with her? She plays an incredible supporting role.
Madeline we caught right off the heels of a Broadway production of The Real Thing. It was quite a big Broadway show. She had just graduated from undergrad. I thought Madeline was very…there was like an intelligence that comes through on camera and a very seductive nature. She just has a lot of interesting characteristics I think as an actress are very rare. And I think she’s interesting because she has both film and theatre aspirations. I think she’s doing the Harry Potter show next that’s coming from the UK to Broadway.
So what’s next for you Eliza?
I have been doing a bit of TV work and now I’m gonna step back and develop another feature.
How does it feel to be here in London, do you love it?
I love London! I actually have a lot of family here who I won’t get to see on this trip. But I’m excited to see how the film plays tonight. Obviously it’s a big honour.
I’ve no doubt it will be a great success. Thank you very much for your time. Congratulations again on a wonderful film.
By Sarah Bradbury. Also published as part of a feature on LGBT Film in 2017 for The Independent.
Beach Rats is in UK cinemas from 24th November 2017.
Watch the trailer for Beach Rats here: