[I]n the shadow of Hollywood, which continues to douse itself in shame, independent cinema is steadily providing a progressive, emotive commentary on the world we live in. No film in 2017 did this more compellingly than Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, a story about a disenfranchised and disengaged Brooklyn teenager, Frankie, whose routine of vaping, working out and smoking dope on the Coney Island boardwalks conceals an intense internal struggle. At the height of a New York summer, that struggle gives way to a sexual awakening and culminates in a crushing tragedy.
Frankie is played by British actor Harris Dickinson, who carefully portrays Frankie’s nocturnal shift from listless bro to gay cruiser, capturing a character that is trapped between adolescence and adulthood and confined by the narrow definition of masculinity and the one-dimensional sexuality that surrounds him. Growing up, the actor himself never felt so constrained; “I’ve never really been able to pinpoint my own masculinity and define it,” he says. “I’ve certainly seen others try and fit into a certain bracket of masculinity – people succumbing to the pressures of friends or father figures – but I always did the musicals at school and remained a fighter as well.”
Beach Rats is part of a wave of cinema that is gradually shifting perspectives on masculinity, disregarding traditional narratives and switching out bullshit and bravado for complex, conflicted figures. “There are all sorts of pressures enforced by film and television, by the concept of the male lead. It’s the basis of what masculinity and femininity are in society. But we’re moving away from the traditional expectations of a man, letting it be whatever it may be. That can only be a good thing.”
Though his own life experience does not mirror Frankie’s, there’s the genuine sense that Harris learned a lot from spending 16 hours a day in the mind of someone suspended in identity crisis. “Frankie was someone that was so toxic and closed off. Playing that character helps because you’ve witnessed someone else’s inability to communicate, their inability to articulate themselves,” he says. “It helps you to avoid that in your own life. You walk away with an extreme amount of empathy for anybody that has lived with that.”
Beach Rats was filmed on location and when shooting wrapped at 8pm, it was easier to remain Frankie than to transform back into a regular guy from East London for a few hours: “Everyday I was around the area and around the action it was actually more difficult to be myself because I just felt like a phoney. As pretentious as it sounds, I do carry a lot of aspects of the character around with me. You finish at 8pm and you’re on set again by 5.30am. It’s not a long enough time to address your own thoughts. You end up coming out of the lm and realising that the energy and certain mannerisms you have are not real, that they are not relevant to the solidified relationships you’ve got in your life – your family, your girlfriend, what really matters.” Besides the surprising success of Beach Rats (“It was my first film, you really have no expectation”) and the critical acclaim for its star, the life lessons feel like an additional pay-off for living an alien life for hours a day, weeks at a time.
“It’s wrong to tell a story that you don’t respect or that you don’t have knowledge of, but the purpose of cinema is to empathise with a character or a struggle, to evoke emotion from all different areas of the human psyche.”
The clean exit from a role after filming has ended is a complex process for actors who embed themselves into a character: “You handle a role with a lot of love and intensity and respect for the line of the story. When you finish it you realise that you have carried these burdens with you,” Harris explains. “It’s an interesting concept, leaving a character behind. It slowly, slowly leaves you – it’s almost like you’re mourning.”
The film industry is currently rapt in debate about the ownership of stories. Cinema is not shirking its responsibility to reflect the times we live in (even Hollywood has cottoned on). We see a fierce appetite for social progression being met with aggressive, regressive politics, blind ignorance and inter-generational discord. In this climate, the nuances of sexuality, race and gender are more important than ever. Some commentators argue that stories should only be told by those with direct experience. It’s a concept that challenges the foundations of acting and storytelling. “It’s wrong to tell a story that you don’t respect or that you don’t have knowledge of,” Harris says, “but the purpose of cinema is to empathise with a character or a struggle, to evoke emotion from all different areas of the human psyche. As an actor I just try and make sure that I am part of projects that are well thought out and are respectfully done.” Luckily, the consensus is that Beach Rats was a fine choice.
Later this year the actor will star in Trust, Danny Boyle’s upcoming series about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, and The Darkest Minds, a film that approaches the human condition from a different angle. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s sci-fi thriller is an exaggerated metaphor for the suppression of youth. Disease has wiped out 98 percent of the US population, leaving the remaining two percent with superpowers. Harris plays Liam, a member of a gang of teens on the run from a government intent on restraining their power and controlling what’s left of America. “It’s about children who have rebelled against a system that isn’t working for them; it’s about them fighting against something they don’t believe in, fighting for their happiness.” The parallels to what’s happening right now are clear, but just like real life, and just like Beach Rats, the ending is unknown or inconclusive. Will youth and progression prevail? “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.”
Harris Dickinson plays John Paul Getty III in Danny Boyle’s television series Trust, out now on FX. Harris is also starring in the LGBTQ+ film, Postcards from London, which premieres as the closing film of BFI’s Flare Festival on Saturday 31 March 2018.