Sexual identity is now a major theme in American film, especially for young people. Last year’s Best Oscar winner, Moonlight, dealt frankly and, for the most part, trenchantly with the theme. This new film is an accomplished but minor addition to this body of work.
The title rats are four young studs who hang out in Coney Island, ogling the girls but, mostly, smoking dope. None of them seem to have any ambition for the future. One night, a very pretty girl, Simone, comes on to the prettiest of the four, Frankie, and they spend a night together that ends with her calling him an “asshole”. The reason, we learn, is that Frankie is a conflicted lover. He’s also very attracted to men, and spends a lot of time hooking up with them on the internet.
Writer-director Eliza Hittman approaches the subject obliquely. None of the characters come out directly to tell Frankie what, they suspect, is the reason for his odd behavior; not Simone, who starts a relationship with him after he seeks her out to apologize, not his mother and not the other beach rats. His hook-up partners, mostly older men, ask him what it is that he likes and he says, more than once, “I don’t know what I like”.
By the end of the film, Frankie doesn’t really know much more than that, and, unfortunately, and dissatisfyingly, neither do we. Still, I think this is the point Hittman actually wanted to make. She believes that American culture is grappling with this issue and, young people especially, are more confused than ever. Sex roles are still culturally defined as heterosexual, and any deviation from that makes us uncomfortable.
Hittman has a knowing eye and ear for how young people act today, and Frankie’s reluctance to admit he has a real problem is convincing. The sex scenes are treated with an emphasis on sensuality, and are explicit, but not gratuitous. Still, Hittman knows what her audience came to see. She has selected a group of young people who, while not all equally attractive, show us a lot of beautiful skin and move with pulsating energy. Dickinson’s performance is compelling, and has been noticed by critics. The well-chosen cast is more than adequate. Particularly impressive are Kate Hodge, as Frankie’s mother (even with the the most awkward lines) and Harrison Sheehan, gently soulful as Frankie’s unluckiest hook-up.
The film ends with Frankie watching the fireworks at Coney Island (probably a reference to Kenneth Anger’s classic gay short, Fireworks). Frankie is alone, and ashamed of his participation in an act of violence. It is a juncture that, to Hittman, symbolizes the truth that Frankie will now have to face about himself. Is he really gay? A point has been reached where, it seems, he can no longer avoid the question.
Or can he? I don’t think the story forces him to face the question. Frankie may just go on as he has, confused, unsatisfied, but also resolved to avoid the pain of choosing a sexual orientation that terrifies him. That ending – soft and fuzzy as it is – offers no comfort to Frankie, or to us. As with Moonlight, a bolder and more probing film, the characters seem to be left hanging there, waiting for someone to tell them how to live the rest of their lives.