A Closeted Teen Struggles To Maintain His Double Life In 'Beach Rats'

Aug 25, 2017
Originally published on August 25, 2017 9:47 pm
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When the film "Beach Rats" won the best directing prize at Sundance in January, there was snow on the ground. The film's suntanned teenagers are more in sync with the season now. Critic Bob Mondello says one of them is still not comfortable in his own skin.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Frankie is a good looking kid, late-teens, tall, buff, bronzed, a surfer type killing time at Coney Island. At night, though, what Frankie surfs is the web, sitting in the dark, experimenting with things he doesn't dare to by day.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEACH RATS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are you just going to watch?

HARRIS DICKINSON: (As Frankie) Maybe.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Turn on more light. I can't see you - pretty.

DICKINSON: (As Frankie) Thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Do you like what you see?

DICKINSON: (As Frankie) I don't really know what I like.

MONDELLO: As if to establish how true that is, he heads back out to the beach, where the flirting is more conventional, illuminated by fireworks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEACH RATS")

MADELINE WEINSTEIN: (As Simone) I think they're romantic.

DICKINSON: (As Frankie) Fireworks are, like, the opposite of romantic.

WEINSTEIN: (As Simone) So what's your idea of romance?

MONDELLO: Frankie will be more pursued than pursuer here. But when Simone climbs first into his Coney Island bumper car and then into his bed...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEACH RATS")

WEINSTEIN: (As Simone) Do you think I'm pretty?

MONDELLO: ...He goes along willingly enough, anything to escape his home life - a father who's dying of cancer, a mother who can't figure out what's going on with her son, possibly because what's going on with her son changes by the hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEACH RATS")

KATE HODGE: (As Donna) Are you on drugs?

DICKINSON: (As Frankie) Right now, yeah.

HODGE: (As Donna) What drugs are you on?

DICKINSON: (As Frankie) Good ones, the best.

HODGE: (As Donna) Do you need help?

DICKINSON: (As Frankie) No. I feel so good right now. I just...

MONDELLO: Director Eliza Hittman has set "Beach Rats" in a cruisy, rundown, working-class neighborhood that feels worlds away from the hipster Brooklyn that audiences know from TV. And she populates the fringes of her film with non-actors, which gives it a rough, lived-in quality, enough so that you worry about Frankie as he drifts in confusion, hormone-fueled but basically innocent from his beach rat buddies and their quest to stay high to his fraught encounters with Simone and with older male partners.

Actor Harris Dickinson makes Frankie almost charismatic in his ambivalence, intriguingly hard to read, with an easy New York drawl that's so persuasive you'd never guess the performer is British. He and the filmmakers have perched Frankie right on the cusp of adulthood at a moment where his conflicting desires will lead to physical conflict unless he makes choices even, as it turns out, if he makes choices, which leaves Frankie haunted by doubts and makes "Beach Rats" just plain haunting. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.