FILM REVIEW – BEATS. With Cristian Ortega, Lorn MacDonald, Amy Manson, Rachel Jackson, Ross Mann. Written for the screen by Kieran Hurley and Brian Welsh. Directed by Brian Welsh. Unrated, but contains violence, drug use and constant profanity. 101 minutes.
Party on, blokes
The 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill was a Tory-backed attempt to crack down on the U.K.’s rave scene, expressly forbidding musical gatherings “wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” Director Brian Welsh’s wistful, roughhousing BEATS is a blast of rowdy nostalgia for those long gone Cool Britannia days, before the promise of Tony Blair and the end of conservative rule somehow was all squandered and became Brexit. It’s a raucous, exuberant coming-of-age picture following two teenage boys from a Scottish housing project having one last crazy weekend blowout before the rest of their lives begin. I suppose in synopsis these beats might sound familiar––repetitive even—but that’s because they are eternal.
Johnno (Cristian Ortega) is a meek little fella with heavy, Peter Gallagher eyebrows who works stocking identical shelves at a chain grocery. His mom’s new husband is a well-meaning local policeman embarrassed that his stepson keeps getting into trouble with Spanner (Lorn Macdonald)—the cockeyed kid brother to a local bad news dope dealer named Fido (a genuinely terrifying Neil Leiper). On a purely physical level, Johnno and Spanner look hilarious together, the clenched, dark-haired bundle of nerves reluctantly trailing behind his spastic, gangly pal who resembles a plucked chicken drawn entirely with right angles. The two teens share the sensitive, misfit bond of those who have nothing really in common except that they never had any other friends.
But the times, they are a-changin’. Johnno’s new stepdad is about to move the family out of council housing to a sunny suburb far away from Spanner and his ilk. “New school, new friends,” his mother drones, referring to her son’s best friend as “scum” and “a charity case” while Spanner pretends not to overhear. But our boys still have one last weekend together, which coincidentally overlaps with a massive, secret outdoor protest rave against the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, put together by a very funny, acid-head pirate radio D.J. (Ross Mann) who supplies the soundtrack and “ACAB” slogans to all these youngsters like a Marxist Wolfman Jack. The film’s been shot entirely in black and white, save for the tiny red pin-pricks of on-air lights emanating from the kids’ boom boxes and transistor radios. Music is the only color in their drab, gray world.
Johnno and Spanner score a ride to the rave with the latter’s older cousin and her sexy friends, financing the trip with an ill-advised plundering of Fido’s secret cash stash. Big brother will surely be coming to collect—the most harrowing scenes in “Beats” rub our noses in Fido’s casual domestic violence—but Monday morning is not a concern right now for our two little “wee men,” as they’re called by all the gals. In its swooniest moments, the movie conjures a breathless sense of heart-skipping hedonism, a first visit to the secret world of older girls and that feeling of the night opening up and stretching out forever with endless possibility.
Adapted from a one-man stage play by Kieran Hurley, who co-wrote the script with director Welsh, “Beats” boasts a gritty, lived-in specificity elevated to expressionistic grandeur. Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun’s high-contrast black-and-white photography emphasizes the squalor of these litter-strewn car parks and cramped council estates, while the widescreen framing pumps them up them to epic proportions. The visuals have the grand elasticity of memory, especially when a rave sequence daringly explodes into something like the climax of “2001 A Space Odyssey,” giving over to the characters’ kaleidoscopic revelry for ten minutes at a time.
Not all of Welsh’s big swings connect as well. A sequence in which young Johnno is forced to drive for the first time is a nice idea that falls flat in execution. (I know car shots are a pain-in-the-ass for low budget films, but for some reason the camera’s always in the wrong place.) The film’s volatile combination of grubby authenticity, impenetrable accents and glossy, crowd-pleasing kicks will draw obvious comparisons to “Trainspotting,” but to me the film felt more like if Ken Loach had directed “Superbad.” “Beats” is a great party movie suffused with a melancholy understanding that parties aren’t meant to last.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality