Later Frankie will tell another prospect that “I don’t really think of myself as gay,” and while the movie may know better, it’s also sensitive enough not to foist any labels or judgments on someone trying, both honestly and dishonestly, to figure out who he is.
If the film is mainly about Frankie’s confusion, it’s also a potent evocation of his particular time and place.
His desire at one time to write a novel of ‘pure vision’, as told to the painter Jim Sutton, figures here too in his preparatory stage management.
As Bradford writes: “Often, Larkin placed a large mirror behind the timed camera so that he could form an expression that perfectly suited his desired shift between transparency and something more enigmatic.” Bradford suggests that Larkin turned to photography at a time when he was struggling to find his authentic voice as a writer.
Frankie, the shy Brooklyn teenager at the center of Eliza Hittman’s “Beach Rats,” has a soft, low voice, a well-muscled physique and intense blue eyes that seem to contain worlds of private heartache.
Over the course of the movie more than a few strangers will stare longingly at that physique and into those eyes, most of them middle-aged men whom Frankie meets in online chat rooms at night, seeking a flash of skin, a physical encounter or just a sweet, fleeting moment of intimacy.
Larkin’s relationship with Monica was anything but trouble free, and yet here she appears like a woman straight out of the pages of a D. Some are almost fetishist – the same pose repeated, and presumably encouraged by Larkin, in the imitation of a 60’s Hollywood pin-up, poised on the edge of the bed or shot provocatively from behind.
Others employ the same sly precision of his self-portraits – we feel the presence of the photographer through his arrangement.
In an echo of another marital photo of friends, in which Larkin inserts himself between Patsy Strang and her cuckolded husband in a rather calculated way, Larkin stands between the Amis and Hilly in London, his hand placed on Hilly’s shoulders, at once comforting but also encouraging a strange angling away from the shot – a myopic attempt to capture the misery of her marriage, maybe, or a humane clarity on the condition of love?
Maeve Brennan, the ordinary Roman Catholic girl, is documented in less sophisticated ways, the day’s excursion often providing the backdrop to her happy and stoical poses, much as you might photograph your mother.
Perhaps in her domesticated and less sexualised role, Hilly is more comfortable as a subject in his Rolleiflex experiments.
The film is so skilled at telling its story through visual detail and atmosphere that you can sense the gears shifting in the second half, when Frankie tries to open up to his friends — a tentative attempt to reconcile the two sides of his double life that spirals recklessly out of control.
It’s a shocking yet curiously inevitable turn of events, and Hittman neither soft-pedals nor exaggerates the consequences.