In the summer haze of the Coney Island boardwalk, a teenage boy begins to wonder, and worry. He easily picks up girls under the fireworks, but he can’t perform when he brings them home. At night, he snaps pictures in front of a mirror, shirtless, jaw and chest contorted, eyes burning forward with a hook-up site beginner’s misplaced aggression. He smokes and partakes in petty crime with the local tank-topped miscreants his own age, but alone, he can’t stop cruising a gay sex site, where he always seems to pause on men many years older than him. Soon he agrees to meet one of them, and his first won’t be his last.
Frankie (a spectacular Harris Dickson), unsparingly chronicled in the claustrophobic new drama Beach Rats, resists the idea that having sex with men makes him gay. Categorizing the film is no less complex. This is not your friendly neighborhood coming-out movie; no one comes out, for one thing. It imagines a complicated, self-destructive sexual awakening decidedly removed from the confines of coming-of-age queer cinema. But it does feature some of the bluntest gay sex I’ve seen in a mainstream movie, with raw eroticism and queasy attention to detail. Its fixation on discreet sections of male bodies, its deftly anxious hookup scenes, its emphasis on the power of looking—Beach Rats certainly speaks a kind of gay male language, even if it sidesteps the usual narratives. (Except, at least, for one fateful sequence featuring an act of violence, which many gay viewers have found all too familiar.) It’s hard not to process it through a queer lens.
The film is also written and directed by a straight woman, Eliza Hittman, a fact noted not long after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Beach Rats has earned widespread critical praise, but it’s also drawn some angrier responses for, in very reductive terms, linking gay sex with violence. Pointing to the film’s ending, one Sundance audience member quickly weaponized Hittman’s gender in a post-film Q&A, questioning the movie and her right to tell this story all. “Beach Rats Has a #BuryYourGays Problem,” a headline soon decreed.
Hittman doesn’t try to hide her impatience with this. I spoke to her last month in an early-morning call from Los Angeles, where she was filming episodes of the second season of Netflix’s much-debated 13 Reasons Why.
“I don’t think that men are questioned for taking on, or inhabiting, the world of women,” she said. “It feels more taboo to take on the world of men for some reason.” I asked if she thought taking the world of gay men, or at least men who have sex with men, complicated that discussion. “I am not so sure if we followed this character into his life further that he would identify as a gay man,” she said. “It’s not a film about coming out, it’s a film about exploration—it’s about desire, and it’s about putting yourself in sexual situations because you don’t know your worth in the world, and putting yourself into risky situations because you don’t have that sense of who you are and what you’re worth. I don’t see that as appropriation.”
That calls back to Hittman’s debut feature, 2013’s It Felt Like Love, which follows a young woman’s sexual exploration to unsettling places. I first saw it after Beach Rats, and the movies feel unmistakably tethered, two tales of wayward young people who seem almost haunted by their emerging sexuality. Hittman was open about how she drew from the experiences of people around her for It Felt Like Love, but she was more circumspect this time.
“I grew up in a household, and I can’t be too specific because I’ll get in trouble, but I grew up in a household with somebody who was wrestling to find acceptance around their identity. It’s not so foreign from my world,” she said. “The film—I didn’t write from an autobiographical place, because it wasn’t OK in this particular narrative for me to do that, without saying too much.” Hittman noted Beach Rats is also drawn partly on her own experiences observing gay cruising on the boardwalk in Coney Island, and a disturbing hate crime incident from 2006.
Regardless of any personal connection, Hittman rejected the idea that she might not have the right to make a movie like this. “Who do you ask for permission to tell a certain story?” she asked from the stage at Sundance. I happen to agree with her—not least because she made, in my view, one of the most raw and distinctive movies about male sexuality in recent years. Beach Rats is beautiful and relentless; Hittman has a rare gift with young actors and a camera that refuses to turn away at vulnerable moments, to revelatory effect. Still: Who gets to tell whose stories, and how, has become an inescapable cultural conversation, and I wondered if Hittman thought it was ever fair to question a filmmaker about it.
“I think it’s an interesting dialogue, who gets to tell what story. I think it’s slightly complicated at this moment,” she said. “I think that the conversation should be more about how we create more opportunity for people who don’t get to tell their story, to tell their story.”
This distinction seemed useful, if easy to caveat, and I also think it’s wise to follow Hittman in focusing on the work first rather than on who made it. As she put it, “When I watch films about women that are imagined by men, for me, I don’t walk into a theater ready to criticize it because it was written by a man. For me the criticism often comes from a place of feeling like it’s underdeveloped or superficial. That would provoke my response.”
To that end, I wondered about the movie’s ending—if it was evidence of a blind spot to decades of same-sex lust curdling into violence on screen. “I was aware of the stigma around negative representations and that being one of the issues, but I was also, as you know, thinking about how repression can create violence, and that’s true also,” Hittman said. “That the impact of hiding who you are, and internalized homophobia, does have consequences, so we can’t deny that simultaneously. I think that there’s always room on the spectrum for positive and negatives, and I don’t think that good films fall so neatly in one or the other category.”
If Hittman seemed resistant to fully weigh in on these questions at Sundance—and perhaps a little bit with me, eight months later—she says she actually welcomes the discussion. The alternative is worse. “I think that the worst thing you could want is people to leave the theater is to talk about where they’re going for dinner,” she said. “I think the fact that there’s a discussion in general is what we hope we can accomplish with our work.” I can speak only to a sample size of my two screenings, but Beach Rats’ blunt power seemed to leave few viewers without something to say.