“What is ‘dancing’ for you?” a Russian ballet teacher asks a student in Polina. The pre-teen, with that universal hair-pulled-back, young duckling look, responds: “It happens by itself.” Her answer makes Polina one of the most emotionally accurate coming-of-age films of recent years. The dance movie format is a metaphor for sexual awakening which makes Polina’s girls’ story a perfect contrast to Beach Rats—a boy’s story about an outwardly tough Brooklyn kid unsure about his sexuality.
Teenage Frankie (Harris Dickinson) also thinks sexuality “happens by itself,” but he can’t understand his attraction to men. Afraid to come out, he trolls hookup websites, picking out older men to hustle because, he tells himself, “They don’t go where I go.” He avoids being found out by his squad of Coney Island machos who cruise the boardwalk at Coney Island. In the most intense scene, a bartender (Erik Potempa) recognizes Frankie from a dirty motel smash.
Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s focus on Frankie and crew is erotic and oddly sociological. Her shirtless blond boys recall the sun-tanning soldiers in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. But this skin-deep look at young male sexuality makes Frankie’s behavior perplexing. “I don’t really know what I like,” he says. “I don’t really think of myself as gay.” And yet his first age-appropriate trick jokes, “You just have sex with men!” In the sex scenes Hittman details caressing and clutching as Frankie automatically assumes the bottom position, whereas his attempts at hetero sex with local girl Simone (Madeline Weinstein) are curt and unemotional. The gay candor suggests Hittman’s own confusion about Frankie’s sensual, emotional and social identity; she seems to be imitating Nan Goldin’s low-life photographs without penetrating their lewdness, just as Frankies gets casually penetrated.
This contrasts French directing team Valerie Muller and Angelin Preljocaj successfully sublimating their ballet dancer’s sexual identity. As a teenage Bolshoi student, Polina (Anatasia Shvetsova, a wide-eyed Elle Fanning type) goes from letting sexuality happen by itself to pursuing independent choice—the life experience and observation that instructors warn are missing from her art.
Instead of Hittman’s listless semi-doc method, Polina stylishly frames a worldly coming-of-age story from the Moscow underworld where Polina’s doting father (Miglen Mirtchev) works to the cultural highs and lows of western Europe.
Polina eventually resembles Young Adult literature that both enchants and instructs young readers, while Beach Rats is stuck between patronizing white working-class realism (recalling Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door?) and jailbait porn. Hittman’s voyeuristic view of Frankie’s feckless sex and criminal life recalls Larry Clark’s Bully and Marfa Girl without the sleaze factor—and that was always Clark’s strongest point, the willingness to explore his characters’ freakiness.
Both Beach Rats and Polina are entranced by youth’s uncertainty and passion. American filmmakers like Hittman are stuck on the politically correct issue of identity politics (Frankie’s ethnicity is hinted at in his father issues and the cultural claustrophobia of beachside fireworks that symbolize suppressed desire and the hymn “Be Not Afraid” sung at his father’s funeral). But Muller and Preljocaj emphasize character through behavior and work (Preljocaj is also a choreographer and the dance class scenes are vivid). This explains why Polina’s descent into romantic fiction is more fascinating than watching Frankie resort to robbery and giving blow-jobs in the bushes.
Polina’s specific fascination comes in the form of a young dance instructor, Karl (Jeremie Belingard) who teaches improvisation to street kids. A star of the Ballet de l’Opera National de Paris, Belingard has the amorous charm of Gene Kelly at his most ardent and virile. His climactic dance with Polina surpasses the nostrums of Young Adult fiction to evoke Kelly and Cyd Charisse in Brigadoon. He becomes her Prince Charming, which is the romantic ideal that Frankie is looking for, outside himself.