Every year during awards season, several indie films fall under the radar. This year, “The Florida Project,” “A Ghost Story,” “Good Time” and many more did not receive the praise they deserved from the Academy Awards or Golden Globes. Instead, the same formula of period pieces matched with high caliber Hollywood names make the ballot. One of those films worthy of a nod is “Beach Rats,” a movie that draws many parallels to the nominated “Call Me By Your Name.” Even crabby critic Richard Brody of The New Yorker agrees, placing “Beach Rats” on his Oscar nominations wishlist for Best Actor and Best Cinematography.
“Beach Rats” tackles the same subject matter as “Call Me By Your Name.” A teen boy, Frankie (newcomer Harris Dickinson), tries to figure out his sexuality. However, unlike the idealistic approach of “Call Me By Your Name,” “Beach Rats” embraces a grungier, more cynical take. Frankie spends his time with a group of derelict boys who mostly use him for access to drugs. Their macho attitude clouds his view of the world and increases his shame towards his sexuality. As Frankie deals with family tragedy and addiction, he ventures into the dangerous world of online chat rooms. His fear of being discovered leads to secret encounters with older men in the shady corners of Coney Island.
The dream-like atmosphere of “Call Me By Your Name” makes it a more digestible film. Set in a romanticized Italy in the 1980s when online predators did not yet exist, Director Luca Guadagnino created a movie about the pureness of love. Elio (Timothee Chalamet, “Lady Bird”) and Oliver (Armie Hammer, “The Social Network”) treat each other with tenderness. Elio’s parents offer him emotional support, and his circumstances are those of a rich teenager with little to rebel against. Although still risque, “Call Me By Your Name” is a film that a wider audience can enjoy.
In contrast, “Beach Rats” emphasizes exploitation, most notably that of its actors’ bodies. Guadagnino cut moments of nudity from the original script of “Call Me By Your Name,” and the camera noticeably pans away from such scenes. Writer-director Eliza Hittman of “Beach Rats” lets the full-frontal nudity of male characters pervade the screen (though she leaves the female body more concealed). “Beach Rats” shatters any romantic notions of young love — pairing a tough story with cinematography that stresses harsh lighting and the bright colors of Coney Island’s rides, arcades and fireworks. As Frankie walks along the beach, a sharp spotlight follows him, giving little depth of field and only a cold, judgemental illumination.
The two films broach the same difficult topic, but one has risen to prominence and popular discourse while the other has fallen into obscurity. “Beach Rats” has rougher edges and less star power (most of the cast are first-timers), yet it accomplishes something beautiful. Its rawness is what packs the real punch. Hittman is not interested in crafting a love story, she instead exposes the dangers of toxic masculinity and the various pressures that prey on the psyche of a young man. Dickinson holds up his end of the bargain, showing Frankie’s inner conflict with every chippy response, avoided glance and general air of self-denial. The Oscars may have ignored this quiet masterpiece, but the rest of the world should give “Beach Rats” the applause it deserves.