Over the decades, “queer cinema” has largely confined itself to three basic plots.
There were dramas about about transgression, furtive love or lust, and persecution for “the love that dare not speak its name.” “Prick Up Your Ears” and most genre films that preceded it fell in this category.
There were the “embodiment of gay” frolics/weepers, all cinematic sons and daughters of “The Boys in the Band” or “The Birdcage.”
And there was the longest running trope of all, the melodrama (or comedy) of “confusion and discovery.” It’s the most popular gay sub-genre, so commonplace that “In & Out” could knowingly send it up during the Golden Age of “Will & Grace,” twenty years ago.
“Beach Rats” revisits that pain of confusion, parking a gay teen smack in the middle of an age of “alleged” tolerance, but running with the pack — Coney Island punks whose reaction we can guess if Frankie (Harris Dickerson) was to reveal his true nature to his pack.
They swim at the beach, hang around the amusement park where they compare skills and feats of strength in the arcade. They share drugs — pot and whatever pills Frankie steals that are meant to ease his comatose father’s pain as he dies of cancer.
And they check out the girls who come to check out the fireworks, brag about conquests and peer pressure each other as they do.
This is where pretty boy Frankie edges into the background. They don’t need to know about the Brooklyn Boys live sex chat room where he hangs out.
“Do you like what you see?” the stripped online cruisers (most of them older than Frankie) want to know.
“I don’t really know what I like.” At least he’s being honest. He’s curious.
But crossing paths with the “intimidatingly pretty girl” Simone (Madeline Weinstein) forces his hand. The boy with “the sad blue eyes” meets the girl all the other boys salivate over “on the boardwalk, under the fireworks.”
And he can’t admit that’s romantic. He’d rather be rude to her than risk humiliation and exposure when forced to put up or shut up.
That’s the core conflict writer-director Eliza Hittman (“It Felt Like Love”) digs into. And the choice she parks in front of her hero is frankly, a bit out of date and problematic.
Frankie can take on a “relationship” with a beauty who might meet the approval of his grieving mom (Kate Hodge). Or he can wholly commit to a life of sordid highway rest-stop hook-ups arranged with online gay exhibitionists with a taste for the old-fashioned danger of anonymous rough trade.
Take Simone on dates, convince himself to have sex with her, look troubled at every other image of a “normal” couple they pass by (his kid sister is just starting her own romantic life). Or haunt the night with strangers, learning about his sexuality with creeps.
To make up for her frankly-retro and problematic storyline, Hittman (“It Felt Like Love”) paints in a just-out-of-high-school world of Brooklyn’s “Avenue Z,” vape shops, hot dog stands, limited Coney Island horizons and the extremes these “Beach Rats” will go to in order to score something to smoke, pop or snort.
Frankie does what teens have always done — just tries to fit in. And if that means sex with a girl, that’s less risky than being found out.
The melodramatic possibilities here, given the circumstances our writer-director sets up, never lapse into The Dark Old Days. She revels in showing us full frontal nudity and gay sex, along with attitudes that aren’t anywhere near society’s current sexual cutting edge.
“Two girls making out? That’s hot,” Simone explains. “Two guys? That’s just gay.”
There’s nothing new here. This isn’t daring in the way “L.I.E.” was, or decades of gay films before it might have been. But this gritty, cell-phone video-quality drama does a more than passable job of renewing an exploration of the trauma of coming out, decades after Ellen, “Will & Grace” and Harvey Fierstein singing torch songs.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language
Cast: Harris Dickerson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Harrison Sheehan
Credits:Written and directed by Eliza Hittman. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:38