‘I don’t really know what I like’ becomes the line that guides Frankie (Harris Dickinson) to explore his latent desires in a summer of love. Or is it a summer of surfacing consciousness and of cementing identity through self-discovery? This lost youth is what drives Eliza Hittman’s poignant character study in Beach Rats (2017), a film of love and sexuality in limbo, a successful confrontation of the fragility and palpable tensions of heteronormative notions of masculinity.
For the youths of this Coney Island Boardwalk these tensions remain irresolvable as their context only allows for silent yearning, for a coming of age inevitably paralleled with a sense of losing parts of themselves. It is Harris Dickinson’s character that is caught in a claustrophobic society that he can only navigate through a tango between cultural conformity and sexual exploration, which he attempts to master by dating a girl. Recipient of the Directing Award at Sundance, Eliza Hittman talks gender, aesthetics and tapping into the consciousness of this lost youth.
I read a lot about a mirror selfie similar to the one that becomes a motif in the movie. How did this come about and blossom into the idea behind the film?
It was more the inspiration for how the audience would be introduced to the character. I always had an idea for a film called Beach Rats because it’s a term that refers to a specific kind of kid from a specific kind of neighbourhood. And then I went on Facebook and found this one image where the kid was standing in his basement bedroom in front of the mirror and the visor of his hat was creating a shadow across his eyes and he looked like he was about to take a dick pic to put online. There was something very hyper-masculine and homoerotic about it. I liked that tension – he looked like he could get into a fight at any second, but there was also something completely vulnerable to the way that he was standing and for me that was kind of how I began to think about the character so I reframed the image at the beginning of the film.
I realize that gender roles are still very ingrained in the way people think about art and whose voice we get to hear. As a female director, what were the challenges in telling the story from the perspective of a gay boy?
I approached the film from a place of thinking about lost youth, about a character that is unknowable to himself and trying to understand his desire. The criticism of the film is pretty gendered and it’s hard to respond to that because, as a woman, you never own the representation of being a woman on the screen. Most of the criticism is ‘how can a woman tell the story’ and, in a way, I’m just doing it in the same way men have told stories about women and how they were allowed to depict those sexualities since the beginning of time.
Did linking the genesis of the film with this idea of lost youth mean sexuality played a role in the casting?
I factored it into a few roles but not all. I don’t think actors would want to be limited in any way, so I was pretty open-minded with regard to whom I considered for a role.
Audiences tend to be less familiar with the male body on screen. Did you find it challenging to flip the coin and show how sex and the body can be used without being commodified. Does it bother you how much attention the audience pay to this element?
I just focused on the story. Each sex scene in the film has a different intention to reveal something different about the character. I didn’t focus on how to make them steamy or interesting to an audience, I focused on what the character’s experience is and what he is thinking or feeling. That’s how I approach everything – it’s not erotic.
Moonlight came out in a period where there was an illusion that LGBT struggles had diminished. Because of the turbulent political climate, do you feel that this post-election release date adds to the film’s poignancy?
Yes, it reminds people that everybody’s experience in trying to come out is different. I hope it reminds people that there are still parts of the world where it’s not an easy or obvious pathway. There is still violence that erupts in isolated communities when any kind of otherness is introduced into them. And these are things that we are all forced to contend with after the election so I guess it’s like a painful reminder.
The film’s aesthetics deserve special mention. Did you have any visual references in crafting the atmosphere?
There’s a lot of fine art photography and Polaroids from Barbra Crane and from Danny Fitzgerald who took portraits of Brooklyn gang members in the 50s and 60s. He was also a male physique photographer – they were similarly homoerotic and hypermasculine. I can’t watch the movie and experience it like other people. I’m interested in capturing behaviour and looking at people’s faces and physicality. I wanted to find events to shoot that tell us something emotionally and narratively but also have physical components to it. I try to make everything very subjective, from the point of the view of the character and how he’s looking and thinking about the world.
Beach Rats (2017) is now in cinemas in the UK. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.beachratsfilm.co.uk/