What the film audience seems to yearn for nowadays is to see the intricacies of a story without the support of a beginning and end. There is a relief in finding others stuck in limbo just like we are. Uncertainty becomes reflected onto the storyline and the viewer is no longer intimidated of the obligatory disclosure. A film that does this quite exquisitely is Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman, 2017). For a film like this to break out of the confines of Hollywood’s generic definitions, reflects exactly on the characters’ experiences. It champions the uncertainties of identity and does not shame it in any way. Hollywood films tend to illustrate the answers than pose questions and encourage uncertainty.
With the use of visuals, location, and technology Beach Rats is revolutionary in its commentary on spectrum. The main character struggles with his sexuality as it simultaneously disrupts his gender performance with his friends. He finds that his association to a girl gives him a superior image in his surroundings. One that he knows would not be possible if he were to admit to himself his attraction to men.
With the concept of identity in mind, Beach Rats opens to its main character, Frankie, lifting weights shirtless. Immediately, with the camera’s explicit objectifications of Frankie, we understand his performance of gender. One could also assume that attached to such a clearly defined gender is heterosexuality. This takes part in defining this ‘precarious manhood’, as psychologists call it, that many men strive for. In some form men have allowed for this objectification as long as it depicts them as superior. An example would be when Frankie and his friends test their strength at a high striker.
However, Frankie “doesn’t really know what he likes” as he repeatedly says throughout the film. With the loss of his father, the only male figures that are available to him are his friends. As an added weight, he also takes on the role of the only male figure in his household. As a result, he questions the value of everything in his life and what is worth letting go and worth exploring. There is an awareness of queerness being interchangeable with weakness, which disrupts his sense of masculinity. Frankie’s struggle only shows the dangers of categorization as everything ultimately is linked and labels do not permit that. Gender and sexuality are linked but they are connected uniquely within every individual. Sometimes that connection is not portrayed in any of society’s categorizations of sexuality and gender leading to an individual’s sense of othering.
The film’s raw nature of filming also implies a primitiveness to the story that has the potential of being contradictory. There is a blurred area in whether primitiveness implies a black and white way of living, where men are hunters and women are gatherers, or encourages a spectrum of sexuality and gender that is not pressured by societal rules.
Similarly to Fucking Åmål (Lukas Moodysson, 1998), the location of the film acts as another character. ‘Beach rats’ is a name given to the boys who are seen at Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn, NY. In contrast to how they project themselves to each other on the boardwalk at night or at home, when they are at the beach in the sun they become objectified with a completely different purpose. This is the point where the viewer truly becomes a voyeur in that not only do we find beauty in their bodies but also in their ignorance of the world. Their confinement to this the place reflects on how they also are unaware of the infinite possibilities that they can explore and self-identify with. They have become unknowingly restricted to a two-dimensional performance of gender and sexuality because of their lack of access. Part of what might encourage this confidence in location is technology. In the era we live in now, technology disguises confinement.
For Frankie, through technology came this desire to categorize even within his sexuality. As his encounters through gay webcam websites’ try to pin him down to a certain type, he repeats hopelessly that he does not know what he likes. In the beginning of the film, he only stops to chat with older men online giving it a Freudian subtext as his father is in his deathbed. However later on in the film, he decides to broaden his choices in men. He meets with a younger man his age who is more open in displaying his sexuality than Frankie is. His overt queerness though is what allows Frankie’s friends to beat him up and steal his marijuana. This pushes Frankie further back into a cocoon of masculinity. Having witnessed how being queer can project weakness, he becomes confused about how his queerness defines him as an individual. As everyone he seems to encounter, including the gay men he meets with, ask him to define himself, he loses sight of the possibility of him embodying multiple genders and sexualities.
Beach Rats argues against the notion of spectrum being terrifying. In a world just in the beginnings of accepting labels, it is crucial to understand that labels are only useful in the initial phases of identity fulfillment. If they are still in use in the final stages then we have trapped ourselves yet again in a societal invention.
The film ends with Frankie in the same state he was in the beginning of the film. All the audience has learned in between those two poles is that gender is an illusion. As a result, the use of labels can lead to a loss of identity as much as they can help in identity fulfillment.
Beach Rats’ elusiveness can be regarded as a film unsure of its message. In my opinion though, its vague poetic nature is precisely the film’s intention in showing the pleasures of spectrum.