Despite rapturous reviews out of last January’s Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Eliza Hittman’s drama “Beach Rats” has been the focus of intense scrutiny for a brutal act of violence and the implied death of a young gay man targeted through a cruising website.
This realistic depiction of a hate crime was problematic for some early audiences at Sundance, where the film earned Hittman the festival jury prize for Best Director. Neon, which acquired domestic rights to the film, is releasing it in indie cinemas starting on Friday.
“As a gay man I found this intensely difficult to watch, I was really writhing in my seat,” one audience member told Hittman at a Q&A following the first screening in Park City. “I’m really angry to see this story told yet again, in a way that makes me feel almost hopeless for so many of my brothers,” he added.
But Hittman was unapologetic — both at the screening and in a subsequent interview. “I’m interested in taboos as a filmmaker, and I think that that will always be challenged by a male audience,” she told TheWrap on the day of her packed second screening (which was attended by former First Daughter Malia Obama).
“I don’t want people to walk out of the movie talking about what they’re going to have for dinner,” she added. “It doesn’t really expand or challenge what you think about the world.”
At the first Q&A, though, Hittman admitted that she was “caught off guard” by the offended filmgoer, whose response was influenced by the fact that she is not a gay man herself. “Coming from outside this world do you ever question, ‘Should I be telling this story? Am I doing it justice?”” he asked.
“Do I need permission? Who do you ask for permission to tell a certain story?” she wondered aloud from the stage. “A lot of my very favorite challenging films about women have been written and directed by men. Having grown up in Brooklyn in a household that was incredibly homophobic … I didn’t feel it was out of my realm, or out of my wheelhouse,” she added.
She bluntly told the audience member, “People who are looking for films with very straightforward messages should watch after-school specials.” She also explained that her protagonist faces a specific and harrowing sort of pressure that can lead to destructive behavior.
“Beach Rats,” which hits theaters on Friday through Tom Quinn and Tim League’s upstart distribution label Neon, follows a twentysomething named Frankie (newcomer Harris Dickinson) who navigates his father’s terminal illness, a fragile romance with a local girl and the men he has sex with in the brambles of the beach. It’s safe to say that Frankie has a type — an older, shadowy male sex partner he pursues throughout his escalating identity crisis.
But one of his suitors is a sweet, age-appropriate boy and — spoiler alert! — he’s the one lured by Frankie and a group of straight friends who rob him and leave him much worse than they found him.
The director later wondered if the fact that she’s a woman affected the audience’s resistance to the raw storytelling she prefers.
“One thing that is challenging for me as a female filmmaker is, you get a little bit pigeoned into telling a certain kind of teen female story,” she told TheWrap, noting that her first feature, 2013’s “It Felt Like Love,” was told from the perspective of an adolescent girl facing similar and crushing pressure.
Kim Yutani, senior film programmer for Sundance, isn’t surprised by the strong reactions that Hittman’s film has generated. “The fact that she suggests her lead character has done something completely unforgivable is hard to comprehend because over the course of the film Eliza has built a character and made us understand him — and even really like him — in his deep struggle with himself,” Yutani wrote in an email to TheWrap.
“Internalized homophobia that results in violence against the LGBT community is difficult to process, and Eliza’s artistic exploration of this reflects a reality that is particularly painful to see represented on screen,” added Yutani, who previously worked for LGBTQ festival OutFest.
Hittman added that “Beach Rats” was based on real-life incidents in New York City. “I’ve had friends who have been attacked walking around certain areas of Brooklyn, and been totally knocked out. I’ve had people who have had Grindr experiences,” she said. “I’m aware of all the types of violence that exist, and I’ve read about them and processed them. I think [the victim in the film] represents many types of victims.”
There is no shortage of real-life incidents that mirror those of “Beach Rats.” On Monday, a Texas man was charged with robbery and kidnapping at gunpoint using Grindr to find his four victims. Last November, a string of five incidents in Florida were all tied to young men lured into dates, only to be greeted by armed robbers, one of which saw a young man beaten in the face with a baseball bat.
Regardless of the early feedback, “Beach Rats” is as controlled, confident and unflinching as its filmmaker. Just consider her words when introducing her film for the first time.
“This is a tough movie,” she told the crowd. “But you guys look tough.”
#BuryYourGays: 27 LGBT TV Characters Killed Off in 2016, From 'Empire' to 'Game of Thrones' (Photos)
Gay and lesbian characters had a seriously high mortality rate on the small screen this year.
Denise Cloyd (Merritt Wever), "The Walking Dead"
A medic for the Alexandria Safe-Zone, she planted a kiss on Tara’s lips at one point. But she becomes the first victim of Negan’s group when he seeks retaliation for the Alexandria assault. Because on TV, LGBT characters seem to always die first.
Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones), "Game of Thrones"
Imprisoned by the Faith Militant for buggery, Loras winds up dying -- along with his sister, Margaery, when Cercei blows up the Great Sept with a dragon-fire bomb.
Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), "Orange Is the New Black"
A former Army brat who first fell for a German commander’s daughter when her father was stationed overseas, Poussey is accidentally suffocated by rookie correctional officer Baxter Bayley during a demonstration in the Litchfield prison cafeteria.
Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), "The 100"
The commander of the 12 Clans, who sparks a relationship with Clarke (Eliza Taylor), dies after being accidentally shot in the stomach by rival Titus.
Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow), "House of Cards"
Frank Underwood’s bodyguard was promoted to Secret Service when he became president, had a three-way with first couple Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) and died taking a bullet for the president.
The assistant director of the FBI’s New York office was fatally shot by Oscar while confronting tatted heroine Jane Doe (Jaimie Alexander) about who had framed her for murder. If you're going to kill off a series regular, make sure it's the lesbian.
Root (Amy Acker), "Person of Interest"
A computer hacker in love with former Army intelligence operative Sameen (Sarah Shahi), Root winds up taking a sniper’s bullet intended for Finch (Michael Emerson). And thus ended a character who'd been on the show since season 1 (and in more episodes than any other woman).
Donnie (Michael Esper), "Shades of Blue"
A NYPD internal affairs lieutenant -- and ex of Ray Liotta's crooked precinct commander -- was killed by another cop apparently in self-defense.
Mary Louise and Nora (Teressa Liane and Scarlett Byrne), "The Vampire Diaries"
Undead Heretic members who are tired of a life on the run after imprisonment in the Armory, these lovers of more than a century decide to blow themselves up in a fiery car crash.
Camilla Marks and Mimi Whiteman (Naomi Campbell and Marisa Tomei), "Empire"
This (secretly) married couple schemed to oust Lucious from control off Empire Entertainment but then turned on each other, with Camilla killing Mimi and then herself (after Lucious tried to blackmail her by catching the murder on videotape).
Jack Downey (Tanner Buchanan), "The Fosters"
An awkward bespectacled foster teen who befriends Callie and Jude -- and shares a kiss with Jude -- before his foster dad murders him. Because of course he does.
Charlotte DeLaurentis (Vanessa Ray), "Pretty Little Liars"
Charlotte, revealed to be a transgender villain for much of the show, dies mysteriously in a fall from a bell tower -- only hours after being released from a mental hospital to the care of her sister. As with all things "PLL," though, there's a chance she's not really dead.
Sara Harvey (Dre Davis), "Pretty Little Liars"
Sara, a love interest of jock Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell), became the third LGBT character to die on the series -- this time in the shower, to an as-yet unidentified assailant.
Thomas Abigail (Dougray Scott), "Fear the Walking Dead"
No sooner does Victor Strand (Colman Domingo) reunite with his boyfriend after the zombie apocalypse separates them than he learns that Thomas has been bitten. Thomas soon dies and Victor shoots him in the head.
Pamela Claybourne and Ella Johnson (Gloria Reuben and Vanessa Bell Calloway), "Saints & Sinners"
Pamela and Ella, the mayor and councilwoman of the town of Cypress, are having an illicit affair -- which leads to the murder of Ella's husband. The killer turns out to be Pamela's husband, who mistakenly thought his wife was having an affair with the deceased -- and then shoots both Pamela and Ella when he learns the truth. Killing two lesbians with one stone.
Gina (Emmanuelle Chriqui), "Shut Eye"
First, husband-wife psychic entrepreneurs Charlie and Linda try to hire hypnotist Gina, then they torture her, then Linda sleeps with Gina. And then Gina gets murdered by the series villain. Which is modern TV's version of comeuppance.
Edward Philippe Mott (Evan Peters), "American Horror Story: Roanoke"
Edward, the gay aristocratic owner of a mansion in 18th-century Roanoke, N.C., meets a mysterious and violent end at the hands of colonial spirits.
Helen (Sarah Silverman), "Masters of Sex"
Helen dies in childbirth -- and worse, her parents deny any parental rights to her longtime girlfriend, Betty (Annaleigh Ashford). A typically '50s unhappy ending -- though at least she isn't murdered.
Susan Jackson (Hilary Jardine), "Van Helsing"
A bisexual former vampire who cuddles up with vampire-hunting lead Vanessa Van Helsing (Kelly Overton) but ultimately is strangled to death by a serial killer.
Roz Walters and Molly Ryan (Simona Brown and Rebekah Wainwright), "Guilt"
Freeform's one-season mystery drama about three young women sharing a London flat had a doozy of a finale. We learn that two of the roommates (Roz and Molly) were secretly having an affair, that a jealous Roz hired the third roommate's boyfriend to kill Molly and that the third roommate kills Roz when this all comes to light.
Major Corky Lance Corcoran (Tom Hollander), "The Night Manager"
A henchman of a wealthy but secretive arms dealer, the fey Corky is beaten to death by British intelligence recruit Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) to prevent his exposure.
Felicity (Shivani Ghai), "The Catch"
Felicity is introduced as the bisexual girlfriend of Sonya Walger's con artist character, Margot -- but is shot dead by Margot's own brother after he learns Felicity has slept with both siblings.
Bridey Cruz (Floriana Lima), "The Family"
The lesbian lifestyle blogger gets offed after getting a little too close to uncovering the ABC drama's central mystery -- but the culprit was intended to be revealed in a second season that will now never happen. Signs point to her lover, Willa (Allison Pill), who managed her mom's campaign for governor of Maine.
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Gay and lesbian characters had a seriously high mortality rate on the small screen this year (spoilers ahead!)
Gay and lesbian characters had a seriously high mortality rate on the small screen this year.