Eliza Hittman discusses her beautiful, quietly bold drama about Brooklyn boys navigating homoerotic desire, fear and coming of age
On the far fringes of Brooklyn’s gentrified neighbourhoods, the forgotten peninsular of Gerritsen Beach sits tucked away between Coney Island and the borough’s Belt Parkway. An area cluttered with worn apartment buildings, small terraced houses and smaller front lawns heavily decorated with ornaments, religious icons, birdhouses, weather vanes, flags and fences; it provides the setting for Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats.
A thoughtful, slow-burning study of sexuality and self-awareness, Beach Rats follows Frankie as he seeks to escape the bleakness of his family’s situation through late-night gay chatrooms, disguised cam shows and anonymous hook-ups.
Much like Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight, Hittman’s film cleverly juxtaposes performed hyper-masculinity against homoerotic desire. As Frankie’s same-sex urges begin to intensify, he struggles to reconcile these new feelings with his up-until-now platonic friendships with a group of brooding, perennially beach-dwelling bros. What do these feelings mean? How permanent are they? Do they change how he relates to others? How he sees himself? And is he alone in feeling them? Beach Rats poignantly and subtly explores the struggles of a young, twenty-something man coming to terms with a new sense of self.
Ahead of the film’s release later this month, we spoke to Hittman about how technology helps prolong Frankie’s sense of limbo, why she feels it’s important to resist seeing Beach Rats as a straightforward coming out narrative and how she drew inspiration from a news feed flooded with shirtless selfies.
Can you tell me what inspired the story? I’ve read that you witnessed an instance of homophobia…
Eliza Hittman: There are many, many impulses that go into shaping a fictional film. When working on my first feature – It Felt Like Love – I did a bunch of street casting. I met a kids from Gerritsen Beach, a part of Brooklyn that’s really removed from the rest of the borough. They’re called “beach rats”, it’s like a slang street term. They grow up very isolated from the city, and a lot of them have opiate problems and meth problems, they spend time on these dirty beaches, they’re a bit wild and rowdy. While I was shooting my first film, spending so much time in the neighbourhood, I noticed a lot of cruising still happening along those beaches. I was still thinking about the boys and rough ‘n’ tumble kids that hang out on those beaches during the day and the men that hang out on the same beaches at night. It creates a natural tension. I started thinking about the circumstances and obstacles these kids, and what it’d be like for them to travel back and forth between these two worlds, the beach during the day and the beach at night. There are thematic overlaps between the film and my experience, but the film is by no means biographical.
Did you speak to any of the men you saw cruising?
Eliza Hittman: It was more observational. I spent a lot of time in certain sites watching transactional encounters, thinking about the circumstances which drive people to meet in total darkness, off a road near the water. While developing a script I spend a lot of time walking around, taking things in, watching guys play handball, walking into vape shops, trying them in the context of the script. Do those moments deepen our understanding of the world? Does it contribute to the narrative progression of the story? That’s how I explore the film. What would this character do? Walking by and seeing the party boats, would they try and get on one of them? I try to walk through the world as if I was the character.
Do you think it’s a coming out story?
Eliza Hittman: No, I never thought of it that way. I approached it from a point of view, writing about and exploring lost youth which all of my work has explored. Young people at pivotal moments in their teenage life. Pivotal turning points that provoke a painful realisation about themselves and the world. Growing up is this process of disillusionment about yourself and the world, for me it’s watching young people on screen come to these painful realisations, come to consciousness about who they are in the world.
Do you think of Frankie as gay? Or about his life after the timeline of the film?
Eliza Hittman: I don’t see the road for him as ever being easy. The film explores fear, and the fear specifically of desire, it’s not about “is he/isn’t he.” It’s about a specific moment, a slice of life. I tried to avoid that question.
Do you think Grindr and the websites Frankie uses play a role in enabling his sense of limbo? Do they enable him to gratify his homosexual impulses without prompting him to reflect on his identity or sexuality?
Eliza Hittman: I think that’s always been the case. When I was a teenager, AOL chatrooms, screen names – you never knew the gender or the age of the person you were talking to and the conversation was almost always sexual. People had conversations hoping for a sexual encounter. I always saw the internet as a way to act out sexual desires and fantasy in an anonymous environment. The internet for the character is an escape, and a portal to a fantasy. I think it does prolong his sense of limbo.
“I always saw the internet as a way to act out sexual desires and fantasy in an anonymous environment. The internet for the character is an escape, and a portal to a fantasy” – Eliza Hittman
He’s attracted to older men, but he doesn’t sleep with a man until after his father has passed away. Does he substitute these older men for his father?
Eliza Hittman: I wanted to make a subtle suggestion and connection – the father is a symbol of the patriarchy, and that somehow prevents Frankie from living an authentic life. It’s not until the father passes that he’s free to explore but I didn’t want it to be too explicit. The men he meets aren’t too similar to his father.
Some of these encounters help Frankie explore his sexuality, some are a little more sinister...
Eliza Hittman: He meets people who help him, but these men are also compartmentalised in some way. The area along the water feels like a stop over for men who work in the city and go home to the suburbs on Long Island. It was supposed to feel like he was meeting people who could be versions of himself in later life.
The married men he meets especially! Is protective of his sister when he finds out about her relationship? Or is he jealous that she can express her desires in public in a way that he can’t?
Eliza Hittman: That was the intention for sure. On one level it could be read as ‘big brother’ behaviour, but subtly I wanted you to feel as though there was a deeper envy – it’s so easy for her.
The scene of violence towards the end of the film, was that drawn from real world experiences?
Eliza Hittman: It’s drawn from a few different events but it’s not a reenactment.
The photos that Frankie takes, the selfies in the mirror, that was something you saw on your Facebook?
Eliza Hittman: When I start on any project, I just grab images from people in the world. I went on Facebook and looked at kids I knew from that area, started screen grabbing images. It was a very provocative image, and could be interpreted in different ways. I was struck by the tension in the image between sex, eroticism and aggression.
How does the tension between hyper-masculinity and homoeroticism express itself in the film?
Eliza Hittman: I didn’t want to be too overt about it, the push and pull of the narrative drives that conversation. The rough sex moment, when the head is held down, there’s something macho about that but simultaneously it’s a homoerotic moment. It’s at play in many moments throughout the film.