Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr In Beach Rats, director Eliza Hittman takes on the subject of homosexuality in an age when toxic masculinity has become a more visible topic in the cultural arena. The film opens with teenage protagonist Frankie (Harrison Dickinson) cruising the website Brooklyn Boys, a video chat client geared toward gay men looking to fool around online. Frankie participates, but he’s awfully reserved. He can’t even bring himself to say “show me your dick” without encouragement from his chat partner. In the next scene, we see the closeted Frankie in his more natural element: raising hell on the Coney Island boardwalk with his crew of beefcake friends, pickpocketing tourists for arcade money and, of course, aggressively hitting on girls. When he hooks up with Simone (Madeline Weinstein), the would-be object of his affection, the situation is predictable: He can’t get it up, so he blames it on the drugs and booze and strings her along, lest his friends get the idea that he might be gay. The subject of toxic masculinity takes root in this conflict. Frankie has no physical desire to sleep with Simone, but a combination of pressures—social, cultural, self-imposed—push him toward continued interaction, and he assumes the role of “macho straight dude” with alarming ease. He’s angered, for instance, when he and his friends see her at the beach with another guy the day after their awkward sexual encounter, triggering his territorial instincts and sense of pride. But it’s difficult to tell whether his behavior is genuine or performative. If it’s genuine, then Beach Rats makes the convincing argument that toxic masculinity is indeed a toxic entity, something that transcends sexual preference or gendered behavior. If it’s performative, then the film makes a similarly convincing argument against the idea that we’ve entered a “post-gay culture,” where anyone can come out at any time without fear of alienation or hatred. But then again, it might be making both arguments, or neither; “I don’t know what I like,” Frankie tells multiple partners, and while the words are a way to deflect responsibility for his choices, they speak to a deeper human truth than he probably realizes. As the film unfolds, Hittman settles into themes similar to those she explored in her previous film, the debut effort It Felt Like Love. The director captures burgeoning teenage sexuality with frankness, vulnerability and tremendous interior detail. Her films are character studies that prove to be more interested in the idea of the character rather than the character itself, meaning she’s more interested in exploring someone who simulates a sexual identity in order to maintain a social expectation. The male gaze sits at the center of both films, but in Beach Rats, the idea takes a far more physical and sensual shape. Like Claire Denis in Beau Travail, Hittman puts a self-aware focus on the male figure. Frankie readily objectifies his body, taking bathroom selfies in a way that encapsulates both the film’s thematic mindset and overall aesthetic goals. Chiseled male figures surround him (it could be that the main reason Frankie embraces such a macho public persona is to maintain proximity to his hot male friends, another aspect of his deeply rooted toxic masculinity), but so does the weathered skin of his much older hookups, whom he prefers to guys his own age because they’re less likely to know the same people he knows. With lyricism and striking visual insight, Hittman presents the body in myriad forms: as shield, as camouflage and as burden. Hittman is squarely among the more intriguing crop of young American filmmakers, but she’s still finding her voice as a storyteller. For all its visual poetry, Beach Rats is confined to the conventional world of color-by-numbers indie drama. Scenarios from Frankie’s difficult home life do little to underline his conflicted sexuality and have the same perfunctory air as a daytime soap opera. There’s also little effort given to making Simone a more fully realized character. Of course, her thin depiction might circle back to film’s ideas of the male gaze and toxic masculinity, but given the sensitivity Hittman displays elsewhere in the film (not to mention the empathetic female characterizations in It Felt Like Love), it feels like a major misstep. The alarming denouement, a sort of anti-reconciliation that speaks to the ugliness and anguish within Frankie, is clearly designed as a sort of course correction, but Hittman’s psychological observations are half-baked and simplistic. It’s a good thing Beach Rats looks the way it does—hazy, ethereal, vexatious, lonely—because the conclusions she draws here could have come from any other film.