DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The best director's prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival went to Eliza Hittman for her drama "Beach Rats," which stars Harris Dickinson as a teenager struggling to come to terms with his sexuality in and around the working-class neighborhoods of Brooklyn's Coney Island. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The second feature by writer-director Eliza Hittman is feverish and gripping and all the more amazing because it shaped around a blank face. The main character in "Beach Rats" is a teenager named Frankie played by the English actor Harris Dickinson, who's not been directed to express much. Dickinson is thin but muscular with a long waist, full lips, prominent cheekbones and sunken eyes that give him a quality of remoteness. I'm deconstructing his body because Hittman does. He's first seen a piece at a time looking in the mirror in his home near Coney Island. Then he clicks on a gay hookup site and settles on a middle-aged man. They meet up, have sex, but Frankie is halting. He can't seem to commit to the act.
Frankie's dad is dying in the living room. He's in the last stage of cancer and doesn't speak. It's not clear if Frankie's attraction to older men is related to his father's imminent loss. What is clear, to us, is Frankie is gay, which is not easy or safe to express in the company he keeps - a posse of muscular teens who lope around Coney Island looking vaguely predatory and not so vaguely when they lift people's wallets.
In an early scene, a pretty girl named Simone played by Madeline Weinstein spots him in the glow of fireworks and does all the work of seducing him - all the work. He won't even admit to being thrilled by the fireworks. When she asks if he thinks she's pretty, he won't answer. Nothing happens in his bedroom. And she leaves in anger. Such is Frankie's life, though, that when he sees her on the beach, he apologizes and asks her out. And she forgives him and becomes his girlfriend. But the sparks don't exactly fly.
"Beach Rats" somehow manages to seem both listless and scarily taut. Hittman has an anthropologist's eye for working-class male rituals, for the way these young men seize the space, even doing pull ups on the subway to make their biceps ripple. Their sexual energy is palpable and, as seen through Frankie's eyes, threatening. The soundtrack is pounding, especially in Coney Island's amusement park - a cacophony of squeals and electronic blips and the abrasive music of rides, those rides shot with suddenly canted angles to intensify Frankie's fear and disorientation. He becomes even more desperate when the potent pain pills he's been stealing from his dad supply run out. As I've said, he expresses nothing outwardly, but that lack of expression comes to seem like terror. In the amusement park, he oh so obliquely poses a question to Simone about homosexuality.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEACH RATS")
HARRIS DICKINSON: (As Frankie) Have you ever made out with a girl before?
MADELINE WEINSTEIN: (As Simone) Why are you asking?
DICKINSON: (As Frankie) Have you?
WEINSTEIN: (As Simone) Sure, lots of times. What's the big deal?
DICKINSON: (As Frankie) No, I'm cool with it.
WEINSTEIN: (As Simone) There's no it. It's just hot when two girls make out.
DICKINSON: (As Frankie) I'm not arguing.
WEINSTEIN: (As Simone) OK.
DICKINSON: (As Frankie) You think it's hot when two guys make out?
WEINSTEIN: (As Simone) No, it's not hot. It's just gay.
DICKINSON: (As Frankie) What do you mean?
WEINSTEIN: (As Simone) Two girls can make out, and it's hot. But when two guys make out, it's gay.
EDELSTEIN: Sex is everywhere in this culture. But Frankie can't talk about his, not even with his loving mother played by Kate Hodge who senses something's ripping him apart. His young sister is starting to experiment with sex, which brings out, ironically, a strain of angry paternalism in him. Meanwhile, there's a shot in which one of his posse looks at Frankie and two friends with their shirts off in the waves. And it's clear that guy is gay, too, but won't act on it anytime soon.
Director Eliza Hittman's first film was also about sex, evocatively titled "It Felt Like Love" and from a young girl's perspective. It's surprising that in her next film, she focuses her gaze on young men. But the subject of "Beach Rats" is gender neutral - intense sexual repression in a culture of intense sexual exhibitionism. She builds to something horrifying and violent but don't expect catharsis. Frankie is still kind of a blank. We see him again watching fireworks - the traditional symbol of romance and gratification. And he's still tragically unable to surrender.
DAVIES: You missed like our interview with former F. David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, like our interview with former FBI profiler James Fitzgerald, who's careful analyses of the writings of the Unabomber were critical to solving that case, check out our podcast, where you'll find that and many more. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN RAYMOND'S "I'LL FLY AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.