The Big Ship Recommends: BEACH RATS
A solemn, aching song of yearning, conducted with critical care from its highest notes of hope, right down to its lowest chords of longing.
Beach Rats is a solemn, aching song of yearning, conducted with critical care from its very highest leaping notes of hope, right down to the persistent hum of its lowest chords of fear and longing. Eliza Hittman, the director, performs the delicate task of realizing the clear form of a character who exists reluctantly even in the most private corners of his own reality. Frankie, its disinclined protagonist, vehemently resists being seen and understood by the people closest to him, and the film is a masterclass in how auteurs can employ the use of the ‘unseen’ techniques – lighting, framing and composition – to create a deeply intimate portrait of a character who hides from spotlight.
Like other character-driven films of its ilk, Beach Rats’ exploration of burgeoning and latent self-identity is what drives the film onwards, rather than a particular narrative arc. Its success in this is a testament to how well Hittman constructs the film as an organic entity, an extension of the character around which it is formed. The camera clings to Frankie, capturing him most closely in his private scenes; we snatch glimpses of his downturned face, angular and shadowed, lit by the self-conscious sequence of flashes from his camera phone; early light falls on an outstretched arm, the tendons in the back of a hand, a clenched jaw. Frankie shies away from the light, and the camera follows. Much of the film is dark and proximate like this, pulling us ever-closer, commanding our concentration. The stillness and quietness in the scenes where Hittman makes her most delicate brush strokes allows for the peripeteia of the film occur almost in passing. Although we spend a lot of the film watching Frankie breathe, the final scene seems to be the first in which he has let out a breath. Indeed, the stilted, hitched-breath plot of the film is itself emblematic of the stilted, hitched-breath life of its protagonist; Frankie suspends himself in his discontent, paralysed by fear for the possibility of a future not yet realized. For all of its protracted, formless pangs of pain and anxiety, it is not without acute, studied tenderness and intimacy too. Where the camera is tireless and exposing in its dogged pursuit of Frankie, it is also romantic, in its relentless focus on the sharp lines and soft curves of men’s bodies, bathing them over and over again throughout the film in fantastic red, green, blue light. For Roger Ebert, Sheila O’Malley writes, “longing is agony. Longing is pleasure too.” Put so succinctly, this duality is the essence of Beach Rats.