From the first minute or so, with all your senses awash in soaking of colorless visuals and hard banging, Beats is an instant snapshot from a time in world history where rebellion carried a finite musical backbone, and character integrity meant evolving at a reluctant pace. That much can be said for Johnno (Cristian Ortega), the flittery, furious kid in a rather conservative family. With his friend Spanner (Lorn MacDonald), they are hellbent on taking over the world. And yet Johnno’s parents are assured they are weighing each other down.
Their tale takes place in mid-90s Scotland, that familiar time of Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. Using the historical lineage of the country’s then-fresh Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which outlawed all unauthorized all musical performances involving “a repetitive sequence of beats”, i.e. raves, the stakes couldn’t be higher for two best friends with their world being ripped apart at the end of a wild summer. Their taste in music’s been outlawed, and Johnno’s mother (Laura Fraser), and her police officer boyfriend (Brian Ferguson) is insisting on moving the family out of the post-industrial hub they called home into the suburbs, and away from anyone they consider total “scum of the earth.” Hearing about one last middle finger to the government act ahead in the form of a gathering, sneaking out is considerably their only shot to join in that crumbling rebellion before approaching the front door of adulthood.
Adapting from Kieran Hurley’s 2012 one-man play, writer/director Brian Welsh (The Rack Pack) enacts a finite precision in expressing the joyful frustration of counterculture on the verge of suppression. From start to finish, Beats is a visual-heavy, well-acted whir. Very tough not to compare to the early work of Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor, though that could be expected. The only notable issue I could experience in my viewing is reasonable enough. The emotional reach may have been lacking since I didn’t quite grow up around the historical plight facing Jonno and Spanner. You had to have been there. It shouldn’t be that much of a detriment, but it poses its own distraction, as does the thick Scottish accents that will require the need for subtitles.
Beats is a still a proficiently soulful watch if one favors the catharsis of nonconformity above controlled chaos. Ortega and MacDonald give the film its sharpness and its youthful sensibility. They lead a confident ensemble cast all aiming for the same goal, including the rogue DJ (Ross Mann) headlining the auditory protest. And Spanner’s junkie of an older brother (Neil Leiper) who’s out for vengeance, the same way his nearest male role model is out to shut down the illegal rave. Some rather dark turns in an otherwise mostly bright, and optimistic tale carried by artistic caution.
The style aesthetic further emphasizes its abnormal ideal, in outlandish broad strokes. Welsh and cinematographer Benjamin Kracun (Beast) bravely pull a Nebraska, shooting in black-and-white. A few boombox reds and one key moment of euphoria opening the rainbow are the lone exceptions. For a film of this sort whose comparatives have aimed for muted and dingy in full color, Welsh is emphasizing the sheer blandness of their community and that desire to go beyond that by willingly risking prosecution if raided. It is a very bold, risky choice, especially for a still up-and-coming director. But the payoff is certainly higher.
Whether anyone outside the UK knew this was an issue in global society back in 1994, is up for debate. The candidness Welsh and Hurley express in the moment may not be so easily rivaled. Beats is quite the existential banger, even if its emotional depth lacks consistency. It can still flow from moment to moment with great ease, hardly missing a thump. It will stand as one of the more overlooked fun summer indie champs this year, almost criminally so. Perhaps its under-the-radar nature, not unlike its musical inspiration, will be its most lasting impact. (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Beats is streaming via virtual cinemas nationwide, including Seattle’s Grand Illusion, beginning this Friday, June 26; film not rated; 101 minutes.