Beach rats: The harsh glare of life as a troubled teen

It’s an important time for film makers to make more politicised work and to stand up for issues Beach Rats was a prize-winner at Sundance and now its tale of working-class New York opens IndieCork, writes Colette Sheridan. 

Beach rats: The harsh glare of life as a troubled teen

BEACH RATS, a film that centres around an aimless teenager who has hang ups about his sexuality, will open the fifth edition of IndieCork (October 8-15). Written and directed by New Yorker, Eliza Hittman, the film, which won best director (dramatic) at the Sundance Film Festival this year, is inspired by the South Brooklyn working–class neighbourhoods and the borough’s coastal communities where the character of Frankie gravitates with his delinquent friends.

Frankie is keen to escape the bleakness of his home life where his father is dying of cancer. He uses the basement of hi s family’s home to surf gay dating sites and take part in webcams. As the webcam sessions intensify, he starts hooking up with guys at a nearby cruising beach while simultaneously entering into a tentative relationship with a young woman.

Hittman’s first feature film, It Felt Like Love premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and The New Yorker named it one of the 20 best films of 2014.

For Beach Rats, Hittman’s second feature, the director was drawn back to under-privileged areas of Brooklyn having set her first film in that terrain.

“’I’m interested in the sort of challenges that kids from specific neighbourhoods face,” says Hittman.

“They’re cut off from the city. They have limited opportunities in terms of work and a lot of them end up falling into drugs.

“I was thinking a lot about the types of oppression that exist in these areas even though they’re part of a very progressive city.

“People in cities as liberal as New York forget that others still have challenges in coming to terms with themselves and finding acceptance about who they are. I think that places around New York, such as Staten Island, are a lot more conservative that you’d realise.”

Hittman is also interested in internet-related violence in the LGBTQ community. It has a significant presence in the outer reaches of the city and can be seen as a microcosm of events in the wider world. There is violence in the film, the result of a long-brewing fury. Nineteen year old Frankie, played by Harris Dickinson is “confronting something that he perceives is a darkness within himself”.

It was a difficult role to cast, says Hittman, who couldn’t attract big names to the film, made for a budget of under $1m.

Director Eliza Hittman.
Director Eliza Hittman.

“Harris is actually a UK based actor,” explains Hittman.

“He sort of snuck in through his LA-based management office. He did the whole thing in an American accent, including his introduction to us. So he sort of tricked us. He did a very compelling audition. He didn’t try to force any kind of macho behaviour.

“He was just very intimate with the camera and he has these haunting vulnerable eyes. He charmed us.”

Hittman feels privileged to have worked with acclaimed French cinematographer, Hélene Louvart (Pina, The Beaches of Agnes) on Beach Rats.

“Hélene has a long career of exploring youth and the representation of youth (in Corpus Celeste and The Wonders). I was very interested in her sensibility.”

Frankie’s friends were largely cast from teenagers spotted playing in handball courts and chilling out on boardwalks.

Working in the arts in the US during the reign of Donald Trump brings with it a certain responsibility, says Hittman. “It’s an important time for film makers to make more politicised work and to stand up and think about issues through our work that we need to address. I mean all kinds of issues, such as human rights.”

Hittman, who also teaches students of film at Pratt, an arts institute in Brooklyn, says that being surrounded by young people interests her and informs her film work. “I think I have maybe one more film in me about youth and then I will grow up!”

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