Eliza Hittman Probes Turbulent Desire in Coastal Brooklyn in the Evocative “Beach Rats”

With just two features to date, Eliza Hittman has emerged as the finest chronicler of sexual awakening in deepest Brooklyn. In her first film, 2013’s It Felt Like Love, the writer-director tracked the unsettling sentimental education of Lila (Gina Piersanti), a timid teenage girl in Gravesend. Beach Rats, opening Friday, follows Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a listless Sheepshead Bay Adonis who spends his days charming the ladies at Coney Island with his buddies. In his basement bedroom, though, Frankie obsessively explores his still-unarticulated desires, arranging dates online with older guys. Shot on 16mm, this richly textured film explores libidinal turmoil with intelligence and empathy. I reached Hittman by phone in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she was directing two episodes for the second season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, a different kind of tale of adolescents in extremis.

Both of your films really come alive with so many physical specifics. What are the details about place that you most hope to get right?

When I’m coming up with a film, I spend a lot of time walking around on the weekend and being a bit observational in the process. [The films are] as much antihero character studies as they are an opportunity for me to listen and see and take in different places. When I was thinking about Beach Rats, I spent a lot of time in this park in Manhattan Beach that’s right on the water and observing guys play handball. I thought, That’s such an interesting court; we never really see it. And [handball] is cheap — you can go into a bodega and buy a ball. I think about ways in which to fold what I observe into the narrative.

Harris Dickinson and Madeline Weinstein, who plays a young woman Frankie dates, had previous acting experience. How did you find the first-time performers who play Frankie’s buddies?

Usually when I’m [visiting places], I’ll try to talk to people and engage with them. But on this film, I [also] sent other people in my place. I teach [in the film and video department at Pratt], so I had a few students who were helping me on the project. I would pre-scout a location, like a handball court. And I’d [scope] out the atmosphere and the type of kids who hung out there. Then I’d send a couple of scouts in my place to spend six hours there on a Saturday and talk to everybody. They had very specific descriptions. I wanted [one of Frankie’s crew] to feel unpredictable, with a little bit of pent-up aggression. The kid we found is named Dave [Ivanov], and he’s from Manhattan Beach. He had a lot of basketball training. If a kid has some sort of sports, dance, or musical interest, I feel like I can work with them in a context of a film.

What was the working relationship like between Dickinson and his neophyte castmates?

Harris is very concerned with fitness and his physique. So that ended up being something that they [all] could connect over. A lot of those kids spend the weekend playing ball or doing calisthenics. His rehearsal process with them was just doing these physical activities. He’s from a suburb of London, which is not that different from what [various] neighborhoods of Brooklyn have become, pushing classes out.

Twice in Beach Rats, Frankie says, “I don’t really know what I like.” It’s such a powerful line; it made me think how rarely characters in films today express sexual ambivalence or uncertainty.

People have described Frankie as being inarticulate. For me, it’s not inarticulateness; he’s just really unable to admit or to say it. But he can act on it. That tension, for me, was at the core of the character.

There was something exciting about watching you avoid certain story beats — we don’t see Frankie go to, say, some LGBTQ center in Sheepshead Bay and waltz off with a boyfriend.

I’m always hard on myself because I don’t think of myself as much of a writer. And I’m always like, How am I gonna end this? I just like stories about people, and stories about people don’t really have endings [laughs].

People’s lives do not fit into tidy narratives.

I’m interested in tropes but then subverting them or moving away from them. I wasn’t thinking about a template for a coming-out film, because I haven’t watched a million of those. I was just thinking about this character and how much I like films about lost youth and misfits. And [I was] thinking about real behavior and trying to represent the way people really act and not the way we want them to act onscreen.

Who are some of your favorite cinema misfits?

I’m a big Mouchette fan. I like a lot of movies about teenagers, good and bad. I don’t know if there was such a specific reference for Beach Rats. I think Badlands is always somewhere in my psyche — [especially that film’s portrayal of] dissociated behavior. I was thinking a little bit about that with Frankie.

“Beach Rats” writer-director Eliza Hittman

I first saw Beach Rats at Walter Reade in March, when it screened as part of New Directors/New Films. During the Q&A, you handled, with tremendous poise, a query that I’m sure you must have received scores of times, some variation of “How could you, a woman, possibly tell a gay man’s story?” Have you been surprised by this reaction?

It surprised me more at Sundance [where Beach Rats premiered]. By the time I was at Walter Reade, I had heard it a bunch of times. The question that surprises me even more is when people ask me if I did research.

As if they expected you to have a Grindr profile?

Yeah. It’s like, How could I possibly understand the crisis of the character or the experience that he goes through? So many of the films I love about women have been penned by men. You would never ask a man — well, maybe you would now — if he did research. I approached the film the same way I approached It Felt Like Love. [Frankie] is just as much an extension of me as Lila is. Every writer takes on their characters in a similar way, male or female. It’s an interesting part of the conversation that’s happening right now about who gets to tell what story, and I value the dialogue. But I think it’s directed more harshly at women.

Beach Rats opens Friday at the Landmark Sunshine and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.