Sundance (II): A Few Useful Details

Beach Rats

By Jay Kuehner 

At a Q&A after a well-received screening of Eliza Hittman’s film Beach Rats, which earned her the Directing Award in the US Dramatic competition, the Cal Arts grad spoke of the aesthetic need to “de-emphasize story”—an admission that, in the context of Sundance’s high priority for narrative takeaways, might well have constituted blasphemy. Notionally a film about boys idling a summer away in South Brooklyn, the film is anything but idle in its restless portrayal of one particular beach rat’s personal crisis, a coming-of-consciousness tale in which the doe-faced but sinewy Frankie (star-in-the-making Harris Dickinson) can’t escape his increasing attraction to other men while maintaining a façade of hetero-normativity. As far as story goes, such an implicitly tensile construct is ripe for mining, not only in the immediate afterglow of Moonlight’s (2016) sumptuous ache of sexual ambiguity, but in the dramatic disparity such a conceit proposes: how will Frankie navigate his fledgling desire, and how will Hittman channel the specifics of his otherwise hermetic destiny? And how, if at all, does the de-emphasis of story ultimately serve the deeper story at hand?

The long answer to this resides somewhere in the suggestive power of hands in the films of Robert Bresson, but in the case of Beach Rats, its milieu circumscribed by a certain futility of basement-dwelling teen life with limited access to drugs but seemingly unlimited access to sex, there is something expressive about a scene of smoke signals sent among kids inhabiting a vape shop for the screen duration of a hip-hop tune. It doesn’t advance the narrative but rather stalls it, yet it gives appreciable insight into place, time, and company kept, all factors which come to bear on the protagonist’s identity as it takes particular shape. That Frankie’s father is bedridden with a terminal illness might tip the film toward dramatic tropes, except that the payoff is less about grief so much as a steady supply of prescription painkillers. Hittman could have skipped the pharmacy visit, but there is something telling about desperation when seen from the less than desperate perspective of the pharmacist. When it comes to mourning, Frankie is unmoved but nevertheless compelled to use it as an excuse for his poor showing when he hooks up with the sexy Simone (Madeline Weinstein), after they meet somewhat cute on the boardwalk at a nightly fireworks display. “Fireworks are the opposite of romantic,” Frankie says rather brusquely, hinting at the subtle weight of obligatory behaviour that might be tamping him down. In his basement bedroom her rhetorical petitions of “Do you think I’m pretty?” are met by his mocking disdain. Fucked up on drugs, Frankie can’t sort out whether his stupour is an alibi for, or symptom of, deeper rancour.

“I’ve got a lot going on right now,” he offers by way of apology; between rounds of handball, lighting up, and his father’s memorial service, the unspoken claim on Frankie’s attention is the gallery of men available to browse online and potentially hook up with. Hiding under the brim of a tilted baseball cap, barely visible in the chiaroscuro of computer glow and basement obscurity, Frankie contrives the most self-effacing of advances. His ambivalence persists to frustrate onlooker and audience alike: “I don’t really know what I like,” he tells an older man, who senses Frankie’s uncertainty, his inchoate desire. At once availing himself to and warding off the object of his attraction and the fulfilment of his curiosity, Frankie is a study in the contrasting shame and innocence that attends sexual self-realization in his codified masculine milieu. Hittman eludes the diagnostics of the coming-out narrative in favour of a more sensual, impressionistic charting of Frankie’s position: the drift of aimlessness and the intensity of affinities that rake his barely scrutable mind and his all-too-visible body. Habitat becomes inseparable from story (his is less a trajectory than an impasse), which is channelled in ambient detail: the play of disco light on a pained face, the nocturnal underbrush and half-lit hotel where anonymous sex unfolds, in a shot of the eponymous “beach rats” clasping their hands in discomfiting realization of gay reality. Hélène Louvart’s ravishing 16mm photography never oversells the dead-end grit and chintz of the Gerritsen Beach ’hood, while Hittman intimates something of a mundane borough variation on Beau travail’s (1999) ritualized male deportment (these bros are no legionnaires) and redirected gaze. If Frankie is haunted by his own desire (and damned in part by his cherubic looks), Hittman locates his conflict in stark portraiture. The film’s incipient images of Frankie, his torso frozen in the glare of a mirrored selfie, enact the now all-too-familiar attempt to construct the sellable self. Mid-film, the same image is enlisted to accommodate the presence of a nominal girlfriend. And late in the drama, as Frankie’s sexual encounters are consummated, his body is seen receding into, and enveloped by, the lapping waves of a dark shore; a figure laid bare and “traversed by unstable sensations” (to invoke Philippe Grandrieux). Ultimately, the film’s inevitable tragedy flatters Frankie’s identity crisis at the expense of one of his potential suitors, an homme inconnu whose fate isn’t so much de-emphasized as forgotten altogether.

Geographically not far from Beach Rats’ boardwalk ethos yet a world away, Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits trades equally in self-duplicity, but the anguish is less visceral and more cerebral (and also more risible). The film’s measure of inertia among its characters is putatively more eloquent, loquacious even, which appears to be part of Perry’s paradoxical point. Pressed to summarize the plot to various Sundance media before its competition premiere, the director was keen to downplay any narrative thrust that might serve as a convenient hook: “It’s about two families in Brooklyn,” he said, as if the title itself weren’t provocative enough. Perry’s forebear here is of course (late) Rohmer, and Golden Exits is likewise a seasonal tale, comprised of “shreds of life” (to borrow a phrase from one of Conte d’automne’s [1998] garden philosophers) in which the machinations of drama are foremost linguistic. The outmoded “literary” quality of Perry’s work (as if talk was something to be cherished in books but not cinema) is part of its anachronistic appeal, along with its innate causticity, something perhaps lost in translation within the preferred metrics—which reaches critical mass during Sundance—of sympathetic characters and redemptive narratives.

For the record, Golden Exits does feature an exceptionally likeable character, who functions as a structural foil to the collective cynicism of the film’s interpersonal and internecine relations among a group of Brooklynites bound by less-than-apparent family ties. That she’s a foreigner only lends to the intrigue: young, cute, and first glimpsed singing “Back in the New York Groove,” Naomi (Emily Browning) is plunked down in Brooklyn for a spell as an archivist’s apprentice and doesn’t know a soul, save for an old family friend Buddy (Jason Schwartzman), who she met as a child on her only trip to the city (the connection initially appears trivial, except that the film hinges upon the certain ineluctability of emotional inheritance, however small). The archivist Nick (Adam Horovitz) pretends to be unmoved by the arrival of this angel in his office, though the camera often catches him compromised by furtive glances behind his corny spectacles (they detach at the bridge of his nose like a character flaw, open and closed to his current state of emotions). Withdrawn by nature and profession, Nick is less than convincing in his descriptions of self-styled happiness, his world neatly contained within a few walking blocks, and the artifacts of other people’s lives contained on a dolly he schleps to and from work. He marvels that an entire universe can fit into one room, but he can hardly bring himself to go out for a beer with his buddies on his birthday, let alone “talk to people younger than me.” He seems comfortable in his dissatisfaction, but Naomi’s straightforward demeanour and emotional candour clearly get under his protective layer (her charm, too, is anomalous to the point of being coy, baiting characters and audience alike).

The two constitute the film’s emotional axis, a primary incongruity around which a host of supporting players orbit, their ties incidentally revealed in an unforced manner—suffice to say that the family trees are full of broken branches. Nick’s client is also his vitriolic sister-in-law, Gwen (Mary Louise Parker), who seethes with undisguised contempt for a man she deems unworthy of her sister’s affection yet trusts with her late father’s memorabilia. Nick’s wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny) is a therapist with misgivings about Nick’s historical predilection for infidelity, which destabilizes her professional composure and makes her vulnerable to the imagined threat of Naomi, who seemingly just wants to see the city and make friends. Buddy feigns to be her wingman in this but can’t bring himself to own up to it with his wife, an instance of the little lying-by-omission that Perry excels at extracting from his burred social fabric (which, as a well-woven tapestry of competing claims, rivalries, and insinuations, seems to smother all involved and can’t keep anyone warm). Perry recognizes the seemingly inviolable but vulnerable nature of the self as a social construct, at once deeply impressionable yet too strong-headed to concede dependency. For all the abrasive talk between people, it is in the confessional, near-soliloquy mode adopted by its female characters that the film locates a certain sincerity of grievance (albeit melodramatically maxed out by Keegan DeWitt’s relentless score). The presence or absence, alternately over- or underbearing, of an other seems to be what everyone’s suffering from, at the expense of a self-realized identity (the women here seem too smart to be plausibly enduring such men either way, which begs the tonal credulity of so much acrimony). Someone rather succinctly puts to rest the proverbial rationale of the grass simply being greener: “No, the grass is dead,” goes the rejoinder, thereby laying the foundation for Perry’s update on a Sartrean premise. Yes, there is an exit, but when it comes to family, “there is no perfect getaway.”

A scrupulous attention to detail defines the concentrated modernist architectural aesthetic in the small town of Columbus, Indiana, to which debutant director kogonada has applied an analogously fastidious directorial approach in Columbus (curiously, the film played out of competition, in the Next program). The town’s city hall, built in 1981 and designed by architect Edward Charles Bassett, is a late iteration of the modernist idiom and features a cantilevered lintel as part of its façade, which is conspicuous for the 40-inch gap that draws attention to its suspension by way of disconnection. It’s a slight but symbolic detail that kogonada’s becalmed camera takes notice of, as if materially suggesting the finite gap between form and function, the ideal and the actual, and ultimately the abstract and the emotional. The building is backgrounded, like much of the film’s iconic architecture, by the principal relationship emerging between a local teen, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) and a visitor from Seoul, Jin “with an n” (John Cho), whose father has fallen ill, literally collapsing in the opening sequence while touring the exquisite Miller House. Casey, whose aspirations to study architecture have been put on hold for the sake of looking after her own mother (Columbus being a town of “modernism and meth,” she laments sardonically), had planned on attending a lecture by Jin’s father, a professor of architecture whose appreciation of formal beauty endeared him to many but left Jin emotionally estranged. kogonada choreographs Casey and Jin’s serendipitous introduction with recourse to modernist means himself: a tracking shot which sees the two separated by a fence but yoked by walking, talking, smoking…and a shared sense of disenchantment.

In the town’s hallowed buildings Casey finds an architecture of reassurance, a kind of beauty that transcends the ugliness of her home life. Jin, conditioned not to care for airless edifices, begins to investigate the utility of beauty as he’s left occupying the absence left by his comatose father. As the two begin to peel away their layers to reveal unseen emotional cores, the space around them becomes vivified: the New Brownsville Covered Bridge becomes inhabited rather than admired, a site for the pair’s emotional reckoning; Casey’s back alley, where Latinas gather to chat and smoke, signifies the unmapped places where actual people reside; and a brutalist high-school parking lot occasions a drunken letting-go. The promise and ultimate limitations of modernism are revealed throughout as an object lesson in filmmaking: that formal beauty must be shaped by lived experience, that attention is informed by interest, and that too much spice can ruin the soup. As such the film’s limpid exposition wilfully avoids the sentimentality of Korean melodrama while aspiring to Ozu’s quotidian rhapsody. “Are we losing interest in everyday life?” the film implicitly asks, cutting to the unseen power of a garden hose as a rhetorical answer. Consider it a “useful detail” when kogonada becomes the subject of a future supercut.