BEACH RATS opens in front of a sliding mirror in the dark, with the flash of a phone camera lighting up the reflection. A slender white boy poses for himself, ball cap tilted down, jaw thrust forward in a tough pout. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) posts these pictures on “Brooklyn Boys,” a cruising site where he meets men, older men in particular, for reticent conversation and for sex. He tries to hide his face in the shadows and says that he “doesn’t know” what he likes or wants. Later in the film a man will tell him, half jokingly, that he can tell whether Frankie is “really” gay by looking at the length of his fingers. Fear and curiosity flash across Frankie’s face, seemingly desperate to hear that he isn’t and also desperate to hear that he is.
He sees, as yet, no life he can live. His father is dying in the family home, a hospital bed and medical equipment overflowing the living room. Frankie watches him and snorts his painkillers. His younger sister is before his eyes transforming from a little kid to a young teenager eager to have her belly button pierced and make out with her boyfriend. Frankie watches her and resents her easy sexuality. His friends also seem to be easy in their lives, and the girl who wants to date him is easy in hers. Her aggressive advances make him viscerally miserable: so aware that he cannot and does not want to do what she expects, he responds by making cruel fun of her. Much of the film is spent simply tracing Frankie’s movements through his worlds, as he fails to make traction with any of them, quietly losing it under the pressure of keeping them apart and the threat of their collision. He alternates between withdrawing completely — up into himself, curled deep into his bed — and hurling himself outward, at these men, at his friends, at some girl, as though if he just threw himself hard enough he could get into that life. But life is forever over there.
There are stretches of Beach Rats that demonstrate such patience and trust with the human body and its capacity to register the mind, even a mind hard at the work of avoiding itself. D. N. Rodowick has argued that the cinematic image can “reveal the presence of thought or thoughtfulness in ways that individuals are often incapable of recognizing in themselves or in others, and it does so through its own attentiveness to everything that moves before the camera.” Every unthinking gesture becomes, on camera, wholly expressive of thoughtfulness. This isn’t to say that the cinematic image reveals what Frankie is thinking, consciously or otherwise, but that to look at a human body on film is to look at the form that thinking takes for human beings.
Sometimes we stay riveted to Frankie’s fraught face, his round eyes wide with an acute and pained awareness that he might really be who he is. Sometimes the camera simply watches as boys watch waves; their staggered, white figures like a skyline against the blue. The glare of the sun on white sand, the sweating male form, and director Eliza Hittman’s undemanding camera here recalls Beau Travail, Claire Denis’s near-perfect study of masculine bodies and disciplined restraint.
Two of Beach Rats’s most captivating shots do not attend to Frankie’s face at all but rest on his back: one as he stands shirtless facing the trees in his backyard; the other as he hunches over his kitchen table, holding himself away from his world and our gaze. In these moments, it is not only that the camera trusts Dickinson’s body to carry his story. Hittman also trusts us to comprehend it. Neither character nor audience is pushed to follow any moral or narrative trajectory. Gracefully sidestepping the pressure to move the story forward in any particular or predictable way, these brief scenes hold up on the strength of their simple, patient interest in their subject. Their suggestion is that the body will tell us whatever we need to know about this figure so committed to remaining unknown.
But the film does not maintain this posture of trust. Increasingly Hittman leans on reactionary anxieties and fears about gay men — fears for their safety and fears of their villainy — in a way that signals that she has lost trust in her story and her method of telling it, as well as her audience’s ability to follow it. When, for instance, Frankie is shown sitting uncomfortably in a motel room with a scruffy older man, the possibility of violence hanging heavy in the dingy air, the film asks its audience to fantasize a potential sexual assault, the scene’s momentum depending entirely upon the development of that fearsome prospect. Or when the film toys with our worry that Frankie’s friends will discover who he’s been sleeping with, the sole possibility we are invited to imagine is some vicious retribution. In these moments I felt my own trust in the film snuffed out; my stance toward it turned wary and frustrated.
What does it mean for a film to raise a question of trust? Trust seems an attitude proper to our relationships with other persons, perhaps with institutions, but not obviously to works of art. Trust involves an openness to change, if only slight. Trusting someone involves believing that they will not betray you, yet all the while remaining acutely vulnerable to the possibility that they might. You go a certain distance with them, believing that you are safe or right to do so, yet still alive to the risk involved. This risk that haunts a trusting relationship can make these kinds of bonds vital and exhilarating, revelatory of something new. It explains why a betrayal of trust can feel like a brutal confirmation of what was always suspected.
A film asks us to go a certain distance with it. One way to describe a film that succeeds is that while it pushes us beyond what we may have thought possible — or interesting, pleasurable or tolerable — it does not finally or completely betray our trust. To seriously engage with a risky film (to take a risk with it) likewise involves being open to change. That is, presumably, why we seek out such films: we want to see what they might do, what they might ask us to do. There is trust here because we make ourselves vulnerable to such films. So one way that a risky film, a film that purports to push, can betray trust is, in fact, not by asking us to change in ways we did not anticipate or desire, but by not pushing for such change, resorting instead to the conventional and familiar.
Frankie has been meeting men for a while now. In the relevant scene, a uniformed man picks him up off the street after chatting online. The man is unshaven, greasy haired, puffy eyed; he is grinning, but in what spirit? He drives them to a motel, and Hittman’s camera lingers nervously at some distance, hovering partway behind a door. Very unlike the dark glade of trees where Frankie usually goes, this room is bright and constraining, casting a punishing glare on what happens in its confines. While Frankie never projects any kind of ease or certainty with the men he meets, here he is actively apprehensive, palpably scared. He watches as the man begins to touch him, laughs uncomfortably, pulls away.
The question, then, is how to distinguish between an untrustworthy film, and an untrustworthy character or situation within a film. If this scene ratchets up the tension, if it trembles with the specter of violence, is this not simply because Frankie himself is anxious, because the situation itself is risky? Is it not just that we are scared about what might happen in the film, rather than apprehensive about what the film itself might do?
The scene in question is doubly complicated because of Frankie’s emotional shift partway through. While initially so uneasy as to be ready to bolt from the room, Frankie’s body eventually yields and he finally becomes active in the encounter, no longer just the object of the other man’s attention but a subject, a sexual partner. Frankie’s hands grip his lover’s torso and move through his hair in a manner both tender and desirous. The camera itself becomes exploratory, moving from its hiding place in the corner to languorous close-ups of skin, hands, backs, and little hairs catching in the light. If Frankie tends to watch the world from a distance and the camera tends to be similarly restrained, here character and camera sync up in their shared readiness to finally immerse, to lose a little perspective and take pleasure in a body. So the mood of the scene tracks Frankie’s, and the audience is invited to follow and feel Frankie’s nervousness, then his desire, then his ease. Given that Frankie is otherwise never comfortable, never simply present, the scene offers momentary relief from the gnaw and pressure of his constant self- and world-surveillance.
So again, is not the fear and anxiety that freights the beginning of the scene simply a function of the character’s apprehension: Literally, how he apprehends his situation? And does not the eventual shift, Frankie’s if-only-momentary growth, depend upon an initial uncertainty and fear? The film flouts our expectations of violence, so is not the suggestion of it ultimately redeemed?
The problem is that Hittman puts our worries for Frankie’s safety, worries she has cued, to work for her own dramatic ends. She makes use of the anxious and predictable associations she expects us to draw between older men and hotel rooms and naked teenage boys. Our being captivated by the scene depends upon our making these rather unimaginative links. But to predict, depend on, and profit from an audience’s emotional responsiveness in this way is cinematic manipulation, even if the scene ultimately resolves differently than expected. Not only is it manipulative, it’s tired. It is by now not just “problematic” but wearisome to see a film use sexual violence to signal a plot point or an occasion for character growth, whether the violence is actually realized or merely threatened.
While a very different kind of film in many ways, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2013) is a useful comparison specifically with regards to the ways in which film can mobilize clichés and an audience’s knee-jerk expectations. That film depends on logical and narrative connections that hold for and between certain figures: drunk college girls in bathing suits, confident white frat boys with drugs, and black drug dealers with guns. Even if any particular viewer takes a critical stance with respect to these associations — and even if the film ultimately flouts the expectations that these clichés confer — the film depends upon them nonetheless. We can argue about whether Spring Breakers is finally more interesting than the tropes that it trades in. At the moments when I think it is not, my feeling is precisely that I cannot trust this film; it turns out to be nothing more than an exploitation of harmful, lazy stereotypes. In other moments, the film succeeds by pushing for new and unanticipated experiences of self and world and film — experiences the value of which I am never completely certain. In these most successful stretches, disappointment and betrayal remain permanent possibilities. This is what makes Spring Breakers a risky film.
Beach Rats shares an aesthetic with Spring Breakers, with its dizzying neon lights and convulsive seaside party scenes. It also depends on and makes use of certain narrative tropes, primarily the idea that at every turn, a boy like Frankie is vulnerable to being hurt, possibly killed, whether by the man in the motel, or some other trick, or by his hyper-masculine friends, or even by his mother or jilted girlfriend. Disappointingly, Beach Rats moves increasingly into this territory of predictable fear, eventually victimizing a nice, out young man who we are invited to regard as boyfriend material, and who, for just that reason, is assaulted by Frankie and his friends. Because these tropes are not only exhaustingly familiar but reactionary — another threatened queer for our visual pleasure? — they can make a viewer (this viewer at least) resentful. (Think also of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which tortured gay men for some 800 pages and became a best seller.) The point is not at all that stories like Frankie’s should not be told or that these realities don’t warrant artistic attention. But the fact that some form of violence is real, even systemic, does not yet justify any particular cinematic iteration of it. Everything hinges on how such violence is rendered and the kind of thinking a film prompts us to pursue.
Movies, after all, are not just illustrations or examples of philosophical ideas or questions. They can be proper interlocutors in philosophical discourse, capable of engendering new forms of ethico-political and philosophical thinking. Not all movies actively strive to realize this reflectivist aim; maybe some movies aren’t in that business (though even this is doubtful, since it relies on the idea that some movies stand magically outside of ethics and politics). Beach Rats, however, suggests that it is in this business of pushing for fresh thinking. The film presents this in part by indicating what questions it is not raising and does not want us to raise. It insists that we ought not moralize about the human life at its center. Should Frankie come out? Is he really gay? Would it be better if he was hooking up with guys more his age? Would it be better if he was going on proper dates? Beach Rats refrains or tries to refrain from raising much less answering these questions. Various of Hittman’s narrative and formal choices — the camera’s steady patience, the refusal of either a confessional breakdown or epiphanic resolution — indicate that she wants us simply to attend to this brief arc of Frankie’s life without moral judgment, either about what he is doing or about what he ought to do. Suspending judgment would clear ground for thinking: what might we ask of a character or a film, and what might a film ask of us, when moral questions are set aside?
Yet it is just this openness that is thwarted by the employment of narrative and filmic clichés. If part of the success of a risky film is its ability to engender fresh thinking — not by offering new answers to old questions but by asking new ones — then to enlist clichés to develop such thinking undermines that very effort, shrinking the range of questions the film might raise, and the range of thoughts and feelings we might take away with us. A film can break trust, then, when its methods constrain the extent and creativity of the thinking that it occasions. So it is not the violence per se that is the problem, but the way certain depictions of violence restrict the possibilities for imaginative and critical thought.
Films need to trust us, too. A risky film risks the possibility that its audience will come away with questions and understandings that its makers could not have possibly foreseen. When a film will not be vulnerable to us in this way, does not open itself to the change that comes with being seen, it thereby withholds its trust, giving us reason to withhold ours.