Harris Dickinson, center, in Beach Rats (Neon)

Eliza Hittman’s award-winning debut from 2013, It Felt Like Love, concerned itself with young people growing up in the outer parts of Brooklyn. Beach Rats is very much a return to the Coney Island boardwalk, this time from the point of view of Frankie, a 19-year-old wrestling with his sexuality. Writer-director Hittman gets it right: being in the closet will make you do crazy shit.

Frankie (newcomer Harris Dickinson) lives in a world without a visible gay presence. No gay neighbors, no neighborhood gay establishments, not even a gay uncle to speak of—unless he’s moved away. This is truly ironic, considering he lives in the same city with one of the most prominent gay communities in the world. But the working-class, native Brooklynites depicted here are a close-knit community. With that comes an inherent us vs. them class struggle that does not have much of a place for homosexuality. As one character puts it bluntly, “When two girls make out, it’s hot. When two guys make out, it’s just gay.”

Frankie lives with his mother, a middle school–aged sister, and his father, who is on hospice care, uncommunicative at this point. At night, Frankie hangs out on the beach with his friends Alexei, Jesse, and Nick (David Ivanov, Anton Selyaninov, and Frank Hakaj, respectively), all of whom are directionless, too. The boys smoke spliff after spliff until they run out of weed and then go in search of more weed. Frankie comes home late at night, steals his father’s OxyContin, crushes it up, and snorts it. This is also when he fiddles around on the computer, going back to the same video chat site to watch webcams of naked men.

Everybody knows the cliché about the “straight guy” who always wants to go to the gay club because “They play good music there,” and when he shows up sporting a skintight, see-through shirt, he explains that he’s “just trying to fit in.” Well, that’s Frankie, except he hasn’t quite made it to the club yet. Instead he uses the website to cruise the bevvy of naked men and to tentatively strike up conversations. When asked if he wants to meet up, he explains he doesn’t do that but asks, can I see your dick anyway?

Dickinson turns in a nuanced and, let’s hope, star-making performance. Frankie could be any teenage jock beating himself up because he can’t quite put it together that homosexuality and masculinity are not mutually exclusive. He represents a real problem in a lot of communities that lack openness and role models for people like him. Situations like his often lead to violence, either against himself or to others around him.

Dickinson plays Frankie with a lurking scariness just underneath the surface, as though he could snap at any moment. In fact, there may only be one shot of him smiling in the entire film, and that’s one of the few times he’s in a setting where he can talk openly about his sexual preference. That one scene is powerful enough to make everything else he undergoes so much more heartbreaking.

At the beach, he meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein). After a flirtatious exchange—another instance of Frankie trying to prove to his friends how über-masc he is—she decides to pursue him. Their relationship immediately becomes intense as she sees for herself how many drugs he takes. Simone, who has a job and goals (unlike Frankie’s friends), is willing to stay with him through this period of mental anguish. The problem is, she may not be exactly what he needs.

Hittman has a talent for getting inside a teenage outsider’s brain. Fans of It Felt Like Love as well as Spa Night and Moonlight will no doubt see Beach Rats as a companion piece. And Dickinson’s haunting performance will stick in your mind long afterward.

Written and Directed by Eliza Hittman
Released by Neon
USA. 95 min. Rated R
With Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge, Neal Huff, and Nicole Flyus