Beach Rats literally flashes to life. The flash of a camera phone taking selfies at various angles that are trying to be provocative. Trying to look a certain way, project a certain image. They’re trying. Frankie, the film’s adolescent protagonist, on the cusp of a summer of love and hate, is trying, too. He’s trying to work himself out.
Frankie is torn between two things. What he wants, and what he thinks he should want. What he wants, is to go online and cruise older men. To begin with, this seems to be for nothing more than validation, to look and be looked at, to want and be wanted. He insists he doesn’t meet up with the men from the site he frequents. What he thinks he wants is just what his friends (who he insists are “not his friends”) want: to hang out, do drugs, and sleep with pretty girls. Frankie does all of these things, but they don’t seem to bring him any kind of happiness or fulfilment. If anything, they just serve to highlight the lack that he’s dealing with, the lack that comes from not going after what it is he really wants.
When Frankie meets up with people, it begins the same way as his online interactions do. He looks and is looked at. He wants and his wanted. These meetings all lead to sexual acts of one kind or another; some by the beach, some in hotel rooms, but wherever he goes, he doesn’t go there alone. They’re not shown as being terrifying or titillating, they’re simply shown. They just are what they are. Beach Rats exists at a kind of distance from its subject. Not an unfeeling distance, but a Larry Clark kind of distance; like a voyeur, always worried that if they’re caught too loudly, they’ll be caught in the act. In sex, as with the light of Frankie’s phone camera, bodies are shown in fragments; hands grab and touch, but any kind of wholeness is avoided. Sex doesn’t bring Frankie any kind of fulfilment, or sense of completeness. If anything, it adds to his anxieties. During a boat party with his friends and girlfriend, he discovers that one of the bartenders is a man he spent a night with in a hotel room. He’s awkward, tense, and refuses to take drinks that are on the house, refuses to let these two versions of himself come together. He refuses wholeness; in being uncertain around his identity, he is incapable of creating a coherent one, and continues to grapple with the fear of these different identities colliding with each other.
Throughout all of his interactions, with friends, family, or lovers, Frankie is afraid. Afraid of being too much, of not being enough, of being outed, of being inadequate. Beach Rats has fear beating through its heart. Every breath that Frankie takes in the company of the men he sleeps with is imbued with fear. The interaction he has with his girlfriend when she says “when two guys make out, it’s just gay,” is fearful. The simple fact that Frankie doesn’t know what he is, and doesn’t understand what he wants, is full of fear. On a primal level, the unknown is sheer terror, and that’s what Frankie contends with throughout Beach Rats. He flinches away from intimacy after sex; not wanting to be too much, or maybe not wanting to be too “gay.” Sexuality isn’t really brought up much in dialogue, other than Frankie saying he “doesn’t think of himself as gay.” But Beach Rats is about fear, not sexuality or coming. The closet exists, of course, and Frankie is obviously in it, but coming out of it isn’t treated as being all that important. Instead, coming to terms is. Coming to terms with what you want, who you are, with the small degree of safety that can come from knowing, a moment of intimacy on a hotel room bed. Frankie doesn’t live in the closet, he lives in fear. He waits for the truth to set him free, and it doesn’t as his summer ends the way it began, with fireworks on the boardwalk. The truth will set him free, later, just not before its finished with him.