With just two films, Eliza Hittman has established herself as one of the premier chroniclers of wayward youth. With the patient understanding of a teacher who reaches her students on a deeper level than most, she captures onscreen what most teenagers struggle to put into words.
So never mind the sophomore slump: Hittman has followed “It Felt Like Love” with an equally impressive second feature, one that feels like both a spiritual successor to her sensitive debut and a strange new beast all its own.
“Beach Rats” takes its title from a slang term for kids who aimlessly while away their days on the beaches where the sand of Brooklyn meets the water of the Atlantic, but Hittman doesn’t treat her characters — particularly her lead, the sexually confused Frankie (Harris Dickinson) — like rodents. This is another intuitive work from the writer-director, who creates three-dimensional portraits of adolescents who are themselves still in the process of becoming.
Here her focus is on a 19-year-old whose burgeoning (and closeted) sexuality would appear to be at odds with his hyper-hetero group of friends: Tatted up and frequently shirtless in the heat of summer, Frankie and his crew are the type to do pull-ups on the subway and haunt the boardwalkby night in search of girls. (With their buzz cuts and cargo shorts, they recall the soldiers of Claire Denis’s “Beau Travail” as they walk along the beach.) He’s very much at home among his cohort, and tells one of the older men he meets online for sex that he doesn’t identify as gay despite these clandestine trysts.
Whether the paradox doesn’t occur to him or he’s simply unable to acknowledge it is hard to say. At one point Frankie asks the girl he’s seeing (Madeline Weinstein — like Dickinson, she gives a strong performance belying her status as a relative newcomer) whether she’s ever kissed a girl; when she says she has, he asks what she’d think of seeing two men swap spit. “Two girls can make out and it’s hot,” she tells him, “but when two guys make out it’s gay.” What to do with an answer like that? Frankie gives no outward response — to do so would be to tip his hand — but we can sense him retreat further into himself.
This is familiar territory for Hittman, who was also at Sundance four years ago with her debut feature, but “Beach Rats” is by no means a retread of her earlier film. The writer-director is much more assured and confident behind the camera than her protagonists are, as they snap selfies and flail about in hopes of coming to a greater understanding about themselves.
That’s in part because Hittman deftly combines the behaviors of today with a neighborhood that almost feels unstuck in time. This corner of Brooklyn is a place where kids still hang out in front of stores and run into each other on the boardwalk rather than arranging every meetup via a group text; when Frankie needs to talk to Simone (Weinstein), he actually goes to see her in person at work.
This geographic intimacy is captured vividly by cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who also shot “The Wonders” and documentaries “Pina” and “The Beaches of Agnès,”(among others; whether capturing a boardwalk fireworks show or the thick clouds of a vape bar, “Beach Rats” has an experiential, almost docudrama aesthetic whose lived-in authenticity is in keeping with that of the film as a whole.
Parents might not understand, but at least filmmakers like Hittman do. She’s highly attuned to the pain that accompanies the mere act of reaching out for some kind of connection, whether physical or digital, fleeting or long-lasting, even when — like Frankie’s — those efforts are most often for naught.