British actor Harris Dickinson is a star in the making. He has nabbed the lead role in director Danny Boyle’s new ten-part television series, Trust, in which he plays John Paul Getty III in the other screen version (after Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World) of the infamous 1973 kidnapping. You’ll see him in September opposite Amandla Stenberg in director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s film version of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel, The Darkest Minds, about young kids with superpowers placed in internment camps – fortunately beating the similarly themed, The New Mutants, to the screen. Before then and emphatically not suitable for viewers under the age of seventeen, you can catch him in the small screen release, Beach Rats, for which the London Critics Circle named him ‘Young British/Irish Performer of the Year’. OK, I would have given the award to Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country) but we’ll let that pass.
The follow-up by Brooklyn-born writer-director Eliza Hittman to her 2013 feature debut, It Felt Like Love, this tells the story of a deeply troubled young man. Frankie (Dickinson) has moved down to the basement of his home to visit a gay chat room website in private. He’s attracted to men, but in his words, ‘doesn’t know what he likes’. He is addicted to his father’s medication, which he grinds into powder and snorts. His father meanwhile is in a catatonic state, dying from cancer. Frankie hangs out with three other men on Brooklyn Beach near the fairground, picking people’s pockets and sharing weed. Frankie does not discuss his sexuality with them; in fact, there is very little conversation between them, full stop. They are a criminal gang on the watch, looking for victims and talking small. Frankie catches the eye of a young woman, Simone (Madeline Weinstein in her film debut) who beelines for him at the dodgems. She provides the perfect cover in front of the guys but, of course, he’s not attracted to her. Naturally, their relationship does not go smoothly. In the mean time, he meets up with men for casual sex, knowing at some point he’ll have to be open about his sexuality, once he is confident about it himself.
The result is knife-edge viewing. You watch Frankie as if he is in a state of constant danger. Yes, he’s young and works out – we see him photograph his own torso with an i-phone, one interestingly he doesn’t sell when he needs money. But he is vulnerable, emotionally and physically, certainly capable of causing emotional harm to others – notably Simone – and physical harm to himself.
Beach Rats is not a gay ‘coming out’ film. Rather, it is about how inward you can turn yourself when you are with others. Frankie isn’t a talker, but a doer. He lives through physical action, whether playing hand tennis, inhaling in a vape bar or having sex. The story is entirely told from his point of view. We see how his young sister reacts to their father’s illness by exploring her own sexuality, asking for a belly button ring and wearing a bikini top to the beach and how, in his unspoken way, Frankie doesn’t want her to share his own sexual turmoil. We watch his mother (Kate Hodge) trying to get through to him, to get him to share, and his stubborn resistance to reveal himself through words.
Hittman’s film has been promoted for gay audiences, with images of the four men with their shirts off on the poster. It is a film that speaks to anybody who has had an identity crisis in the face of losing a parent. Utterly gripping and poignant, it is also uncompromising. It is not the kind of film to watch on your home computer – you feel almost like Frankie browsing through men who display themselves for future gratification, but it is certainly an emotionally honest drama that captures the turmoil of late adolescence.
Beach Rats is available on BFI Player!