Day 4 of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival brought some grittiness with Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats,” which really hit the mark of restless urban youth dealing with both their sexuality and a society that isn’t so open to it. This is Hittman’s second film, and she’s taking familiar coming of age territory and reinventing it with her own stamp.
In what could have easily turned into melodrama, she shows the plight of a young man hiding his gay experienced from his masculine buddies up against a grimy Brooklyn background. While not a perfect film (there are some plotholes), the cast of young actors more than make up for this creating a very gripping drama.
‘BEACH RATS’: A GRITTY TALE OF A TEEN’S DANGEROUS SEXUAL ENCOUNTERS
Eliza Hittman has returned to the Sundance Film Festival with the hard-hitting character study Beach Rats. Her bold drama, which focuses on an unfocused young man exploring his sexuality over the course of one tumultuous summer, serves as a testosterone-driven companion piece to her acclaimed debut, It Felt Like Love, which premiered in Park City in 2013.
Frankie (British actor Harris Dickinson in a promising debut) is a handsome, aimless South Brooklyn teen forced to become the man of the house when his father dies of cancer. He spends his days getting high with his “beach rat” buddies and his nights either with his aggressive new girlfriend or secretly flirting with older men on a hookup site, which eventually leads to in-person rendezvous. Frankie’s secret life comes to a crossroads when he involves his pals in one of his assignations, saying it’s easy to score drugs from gay men. This pivotal moment culminates in a violent act, which becomes a metaphor for Frankie being unable to resolve his own sexual ambiguity.
The gritty tale struck a chord with many audience members. During the post-screening Q&A one stated that, as a gay man, he wanted to know if Hittman felt it was right for her, as a female director, to tell this particular story about dangerous sexual encounters between men and if she ever questioned whether she was doing it justice.
“Do I need to ask permission to tell a certain story?” Hittman hit back, adding that men directed many of her favorite films about women. The director added that the story felt like it was within her wheelhouse.
“I’m interested in the investigation of human behavior that might not always have the most pleasant of outcomes,” she continued. “It’s a character portrait. If you’re looking for a film with a very straightforward message, you should watch after-school specials. It’s my job to explore complicated and complex narratives.”
Hittman explained that her inspiration for the script came when she saw a selfie on Facebook of a young man wearing a hat who looked like he was about to drop his pants and flash the camera. “I thought about all the tension between what’s homoerotic and hyper-masculine,” she said.
The director jokingly claimed that Harrison tricked her with his audition. “He had a very striking voice and very fragile eyes, and then I found out he was British,” she revealed. “I was conflicted by what it would mean to cast a British actor in this role, but he really was the best leading man.” The audience agreed, greeting this confession with more applause.
Geremy Jasper’s spirited, dynamically entertaining feature debut Patti Cake$ is the kind of Sundance crowd-pleaser that seems poised to go on to commercial success.
Patti “Killa P” Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) knows she can spit rhymes with the best of rappers, yet because she’s a full-figured white girl from New Jersey she can’t get the chance to prove herself. She’s stuck living with her hard-drinking mother (Bridget Everett, who is terrific here and deserves her own movie), who has failed musical aspirations of her own, and working an assortment of jobs to pay medical bills for her caustic wheelchair-bound Nana (Cathy Moriarty, effectively channeling late-career Sylvia Miles). Patti teams with her bestie, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), a mysterious black Marilyn Manson look-alike called Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), and most bizarrely her Nana to create their new group PBNJ and achieve hip-hop superstardom.
Perhaps the film gets a few demerit points for its obvious fairy tale turn of events, but it’s hard to fault a story so relentlessly enjoyable. Macdonald is the kind of breakout star who comes along every few years (Jennifer Lawrence in 2010’s Winter Bone was perhaps the most recent). The audience is on her side, rooting for her from the opening scenes. There was an audible gasp of surprise during the Q&A when Macdonald revealed that she hails from Australia. Her faultless accent had convinced most people that she was an authentic Jersey girl.
Jasper’s background as a video director has served him well here. The film crackles with energy honed during his years making music clips for acts like Florence + the Machine. Before and after the screening, Jasper noted that he’s been a hardcore fan of hip-hop and rap since early childhood and spent many years working on the screenplay for this film. He wrote many of the irresistible raps performed in the movie, which prompted one audience member to ask when to expect the soundtrack.
The director revealed that some of his characters were based on people I grew up with in Jersey. “Patti just popped in my brain one day and was a valentine to the big, strong women I grew up with,” he shared. “I thought she’d make a different subversive rapper in this day and age.”
NO NEED TO UNDERSTAND THE ACCENT TO FALL FOR ‘GOD’S OWN COUNTRY’
Yorkshire native Francis Lee makes his feature film debut with God’s Own Country, a film that emerged from the thought of what would’ve happened if, instead of “escaping” to London and going to acting school, he had stayed on his family’s farm and met someone he liked in his hometown.
As Lee wrote the script, he kept thinking, “It’s got to go to Sundance. It’s got to go to Sundance.” And that dream came true as he introduced the world premiere at this year’s Festival in World Dramatic Competition.
The story follows Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a young man who struggles to take care of the family farm for his grandmother and increasingly feeble father. Obstinate and harshly closed off, Johnny does things his own way and spends his nights drinking and hooking up with strangers. When his father hires Romanian farm worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) to help him during lambing season, Johnny responds by lashing out, thinking he can manage by himself. But Gheorghe eventually gets him to embrace the help, and to allow himself to be vulnerable with him.
God’s Own Country is brimming with authenticity, most effectively in the quiet moments between the film’s two leads. During the post-screening Q&A, O’connor said that “[the set] was a very safe environment. …When you film any kind of intimacy in a film, it’s so removed from anything [like actual intimacy]. But the story that Francis wrote and the way he directed it was so true and it couldn’t have gone easier. It came naturally.”
Lee told the audience that the movie was entirely shot where he grew up – his dad lives about 10 minutes down the road from the filming location, where he continues to raise sheep. Regarding the nuances of the job, director Francis Lee knew he had to get the farming exactly right: “Otherwise my dad would be really angry, and he’d really pick holes in it and make me look like a fool.”
To research their roles, O’Connor and Secareanu trained on a farm for two weeks to learn how to take care of sheep, including birthing lambs, making injections, and cutting hooves off of dead sheep. The pair also worked tirelessly to perfect the local Yorkshire accent, and while audiences may not understand some parts of the dialogue, Lee explained that subtitles weren’t employed because the lingo specific to the area of the world would still be indecipherable. In the end though, Lee remarked, “because the film is about visuals and it’s about the non-dialogue, I hope that people get what’s happening, even if they’re not really understanding what a ‘bap and a brew’ is.”