Teen sexuality in all its conflicted, ambiguous beauty and angst

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Not gonna lie: one of the first things I did after watching this film was pull up ChatRandom, the first gay oriented webcam site that Google offered when I searched “Chatroulette gay.” It had been so, so, so long since I’d been on one of those video chat randomizers that I’d forgotten how sort of anxious the experience is.

Fully clothed, which I’m guessing — which my ego is guessing — is what prompted the quick flashes of nudity that sprung up and then quickly disappeared from my screen, I felt a bit like sometimes it was a race to see who could pass on whom first. In time, it turned into its own joke.

Hot guy: I clicked NEXT.

Cute guy, innocent, Cherubic face, poor lighting: I waited a quick second, then clicked NEXT.

Young guy, shirtless: he clicked NEXT.

Headless guy, jockstrap, hand on his package: he clicked NEXT… fast!

Young guy, dark room, staring into the camera: I hesitated, a little taken aback, then clicked NEXT.

Which leads us to Frankie. He’s 19 years old. It’s summertime in New York and he’s on a ChatRandom-style site called Brooklyn Boys. He breezes past a youthful face, a few faceless torsos, and stops on a man who appears to be in his 30s or 40s. They chat for a moment. The man asks to meet. Frankie declines but urges the man, before he moves on to the next webcam, to “let me see it.”

The man quickly repeats: “it.”

“C’mon, you’re gonna make me say it?” Frankie asks.

“Say it.”

Frankie hesitates, stammers, then finally: “Lemme see your dick.”

Spoiler (but not really): in Beach Ratswhich opens today at The Belcourt—we never find out if Frankie is gay, if he’ll ever self-identify as gay, and I guess that’s what makes this film so uniquely of the present time. We don’t know if he’ll ever come out, or if this is just the slice of life from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old New York kid on an otherwise eventless summer.

That’s why you’re gonna love it.

In typical indie film form, Beach Rats plays like a short story: we experience only what the screenplay and director, and actors, choose to show us. The rest, we’re perfectly capable to fill in for ourselves. The good news is, visually anyway, they choose to show us a lot. At times this is a rather hot film.

Frankie is living multiple lives. To the girl he met at the fireworks display along the Coney Island boardwalk, he’s a potential mate. To the “older guys” he meets on Brooklyn Boys, he’s a conflicted young man visibly struggling with a sexual urge. To his friends, he’s no different than them, hanging out at a vape bar, smoking cigarettes and weed, in continual search of more potent drugs and the means to afford them.

Low on plot, the film is very much a character study of Frankie, played memorably by the British actor Harris Dickinson in his first starring role. The visuals, the cinematography, are stunning; the outdoor scenes, from the lapping waves off the ocean and the carnival games at night to the city grit as seen from a pawn shop in the daylight, are as much characters as the acting co-stars. And that limited focus can be frustrating at times.

Frankie’s father is dying of cancer, and we learn of it in a scene that seems more non-sequitur than naturally flowing. His mother expresses concern for her son late in the film, that he “can’t continue living like this” and yet, given perhaps the shortened, intense few weeks we’re privy to as viewers, we have no experience with a different, non-druggy, non-sexually-conflicted Frankie, the one she’s lamenting.

The narrative missteps might be glaring—

while out with the girl he’s dating, Frankie bumps into a gay hookup and is visibly shaken while both partners stand by, oblivious;

a scene near the end is an unintended throwback, a flat-out gay male coming out trope, one which until that moment this film had successfully avoided;

and there's something odd and intriguing about one of Frankie's friends, the smaller, rather elfin-looking one played by Anton Selyaninov, its explanation having been undoubtedly edited from the final cut

—but they don’t take away from the anguish, the conflict in the main character.

In fact, it might be interesting to watch this with a straight friend and compare notes. Go with someone who’ll fill in the blanks differently than you and discuss it after. Perspective, especially as it regards communities beyond the mainstream like ours, can lead one to wonder if a film like this one, with its ambiguities regarding identity, its lack of an all-wrapped-up-with-a-shiny-bow ending, its deep dive into the perspective of just one character, was made for us or about us, if it even regards us at all, really, and whether, depending on your conclusion, that’s a good thing.

Either way, Beach Rats is well worth your time.