Writer-director Eliza Hittman had a minor breakthrough in 2013 with It Felt Like Love, an authentic, confrontational drama about a dreamy teenage girl falling in among a pack of older, macho Brooklyn boys. Hittman, it has become clear, is a film-maker fascinated by adolescence’s trickier aspects: the confusion, the violence and the lust.

Her second feature, this week’s Beach Rats (★★★★), 15, 98 mins), re-enters the world of her first, but with one crucial shift in perspective. Her protagonist this time is male – the rangy, athletic Frankie (Harris Dickinson) – and he’s struggling to fit in with his posse of identikit roughhousing jocks because, unbeknown to them, he’s gay, or bisexual, or just plain undecided.

The confusion is upfront: “I don’t really know what I like,” Frankie confesses to a silver-haired hustler on the webcam site he spends his nights browsing. Lust follows close behind it. Egged on by his buds, Frankie picks up local beauty Simone (Madeline Weinstein), only to get wasted as a pre-emptive strike against further intimacy. Thereafter, Hittman sketches in some context for all this hormonal push-me-pull-you. Frankie’s household, we learn, has been left lopsided by the decline of his cancer-stricken father, leading the pop psychologists among us to ponder whether the imminent disappearance of a paternal role model explains our boy’s need to cruise for daddies online.

Evidently, we’re a long way from those merry-making American Pie movies. Hittman proposes that finding your own sexual identity is a seriously fraught business, which may be why she forsakes a conventional plot, instead homing in on isolated moments – often jittery with the tension of being found out – that expose elements of Frankie’s divided personality. If her shooting style remains unobtrusive, she gives us a rich idea of her location – Coney Island as New York’s wild frontier – and time and again she alights on a telling image: Frankie catching a car-window reflection of kids at play, as his own childhood slips from sight; or posing for shirtless selfies with his reputation-date Simone, in a desperate bid to create an impression of heterosexuality.

Throughout, Dickinson provides an effective focal point, operating somewhere between Ryan Gosling and Eddie Redmayne, yet with a tentative sincerity all his own. He is revealed to us piece by piece – a process that could make voyeurs of us, but Hittman’s sharp eye for body language works in hints. You wince at the hunched defensiveness of Frankie’s middle-aged pick-ups, and flinch alongside Frankie whenever someone approaches his laptop. Such fragments conjoin into uncommonly sensitive, insightful cinema.

By Beach Rats’ final act, a nuanced collision between the straight and non-straight worlds, we have a sense of corners being turned, horizons opening up, and – in Hittman’s case – a notable career taking shape.

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