Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats seems unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, the tensions that lie at the very heart of its premise. Abstracted images of abs, biceps, and one well-maintained Apollo’s belt open the film, each appearing on screen to the flashbulb rhythm of iPhone selfies. From the get-go, Hittman positions her film as ethnography; this body is anatomical subject first, person second. It happens to belong to Frankie, a closeted teenager charting the dawning realization of his sexuality, but more essential to Hitmann’s project is the material culture to which he and his corpus belong. Everything exists in the context of 21st century white youth culture. Nights start on the web but seamlessly extend into the streets, the same neon glow bathing both the bedroom and the boardwalk. Frankie and his friends exist to satiate their bodily hungers night after night, the fundamental corporeality of this subculture made manifest. Ditto the pervasive drug lust, which Hittman treats as both physiological need and social performance. Located quite specifically at Brooklyn’s dead-end—“Avenue Z”—and shot in blown out chiaroscuro that, at times, might make Philippe Grandieux flush with envy, Beach Rats checks itself constantly, a little like a vain teenager, to ensure that it signals thereness at every moment.
Aside from the fact that Spring Breakers already vivisected and laid bare this culture, Hittman’s ethnographic impulse is in and of itself benign. Tired perhaps, but harmless. More troubling are the narrative beats that pulse beneath the style. Frankie’s sexual awakening draws him to older men through the internet, each encounter laced with a hint of predatory danger. Intentionally or not, thanatos and eros are conjured up simultaneously, a fact underlined by the comatose presence of Frankie’s cancer-ridden father who literally functions as stumbling block en route to the bedroom. The film never draws an explicit parallel between Frankie’s fondness for virile middle-aged men and the bodily decay afflicting his father, but it’s an uncomfortably Freudian set-up for a queer film in 2017. Hittman’s conception of gay sexuality as death-tinged in some unconscious way gets compounded by the narrative jerry-rigging that traps Frankie and compels his most reprehensible actions.
That the film finally reveals itself to be a morality play at core is, again, not a deal-breaker on its own terms. Like ethnography, moralism is an aesthetic (and ethical) choice. Mingling the two, however, makes for an unproductive tension: the here-and-now signifiers absolve Hittman of the burden of judgement, the narrative moralism requires it. It’s just too easy to play the middle against the sides and in the end commit to nothing. Beach Rats instructs Frankie about the dangers of living in the middle. Hittman should take her own advice.