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‘Beats’ Review: Two Scottish Teens Rave Against the Dying of the Light in Propulsive Coming-of-Age Saga

Executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, this bittersweet bromance set in Scotland's mid-'90s rave scene occasionally touches the sublime.

“Beats”

Every generation has that moment right before they’re forced to grow up and everything goes to shit — before society herds them into the adult lives they never wanted, but had to accept in lieu of a better stable. For the former ravers and ruffians of mid-’90s Scotland, whose already fading dreams were squelched out completely by a government decree that criminalized public music characterized “by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats,” that last gasp of disobedience has now been re-crystallized in all its raging glory.

So convincingly set in 1994 that it feels like it was made 26 years ago, Brian Welsh’s “Beats” is a burn-it-all-down bildungsroman about a country in transition and the kids who’ll be left behind; an ecstasy-fueled barnstormer that somehow manages to thread the needle between “Trainspotting” and “Superbad” (with a little “Footloose” sprinkled in there for good measure). And while even the movie’s best moments are derivative enough to deserve that kind of mix-and-match categorization, Welsh shoots the whole thing with such a knowing sense of time and place that its age-old story of revolt can feel like it’s happening for the very first time — like it’s now or never, and there’ll be no going back once the sun comes up.

The opening scene unlocks an entire world. Two 15-year-old boys talk on the phone without saying a word — instead, they thrash about to the sweet anarchy of a pirate radio signal that’s blasting Ultrasonic’s “Annihilating Rhythm Part 1.” Everything is in black-and-white save for the red power button on the one stereo they share between them, the warmth of a memory splashed with the ugly shock of a cold shower. Johnno (Cristian Ortega) dances around a bedroom that’s streaked with wood-panel walls; he’s the closest thing this friendship has to a Michael Cera, though his tuft of brown hair and sunken field of energy suggest Ian Curtis wandering into a Taika Waititi movie.

Spanner (Lorn Macdonald, who has big Ewen Bremner energy) can only hear the music pulsing through the receiver of his phone, but he flails across his neglected flat in a pair of tighty-whities as if the beat is pulsing right out of his bones. It’s bliss. Oblivion. The pure madness of being a person in a world that just wants to turn down the volume on anyone who dares to live out loud. Johnno is interrupted by his mom (“Better Call Saul” star Laura Fraser), a Thatcherite parent who’s not quite punitive enough to follow through on her type.

She’s a buzzkill, but it could be worse: Spanner is snapped back to reality by the only family he’s got left, an abusive mega-asshole of a brother (Neil Leiper as a notorious local goon named Fido) who locks him out of their council estate in his underwear. For Spanner, this is as good as things are ever going to get. He may not have a future, but at least he still has a friend. And then the beat drops: Johnno’s mom is dating a cop named Robert (Brian Ferguson) — the kind of neutral-personality nobody who aspires to the prefab life that Radiohead would sing about on “OK Computer” three years later — and Robert wants to move the whole “family” to one of those suburban communities that comes with its own slogan.

The ominous clips of Tony Blair on the telly can only mean that the film’s two friends are staring down very different futures, as the Spanners of the world are doomed to be stuck in place so that Johnno’s tax bracket can enjoy the quiet life (“a handshake of carbon monoxide”). When Spanner’s older cousin lets slip about an underground bash, both of these underage boys seize on the opportunity for one last night to be alive together. They’ll stop at nothing to make it to The Arches in Glasgow and rave, rave, rave against the dying of the light.

Carried along by JD Twitch’s ethereal score and electrified by occasional jolts of period-appropriate club music (The Prodigy, Orbital, LFO, etc.), “Beats” alternately plays out like a thumping character study and a bittersweet mood piece. The drab, angry, morning-after aesthetic proves transportive as Welsh adds such a visceral new dimension to the “I was there” power of the film’s source material that it’s hard to believe this all came out of a one-man play (by co-writer Kieran Hurley). But the story is only so transportive because of the ultra-believable friendship between Johnno and Spanner, a friendship which — like the music scene that defines it — is fighting an unwinnable war of attrition against “social responsibility.” Ortega and Macdonald are phenomenal foils for each other, and the more resigned Johnno gets, the more desperate Spanner is to keep the party going.

 

A propulsive first act gives way to a stagnant middle section that pulls focus from its leads and strains a bit too hard to characterize the last flickers of the revolution around them. Ross Mann is nothing short of epic as a dreadlocked, mad-eyed DJ who takes his protest to the airwaves like he’s the Rob Roy of techno, but the sideshow around him drags the movie down. There’s Johnno’s older crush, her abusive boyfriend, a couple of other girls who are fated for the same fallout that awaits our leads, and some randos on top of that, as the 90-minute “Beats” is too scrunched to draw an entire cultural moment in its margins.

Not that modern viewers don’t have time for a tangent that starts with an “ACAB” chant — some things are truly timeless, as the song changes while the beat stays the same — but an even more pointillistic approach might have suited this material, a “one last night” adventure that’s deeper than it is wide and lacks the color spectrum required to do the full “Almost Famous” (or “24 Hour Party People” or what have you).

Of course, that’s what the music is for. If “Beats” slows down on its way to the rave, it makes up for that and then some when it finally gets there. Shot inside the Arches themselves, the last 25 minutes or so of this movie are the stuff of pure cinema — a throbbing trip into the heart of a moment. A Brechtian assault of Weirdcore club visuals help mix the action into a spiritual-kinetic dimension, and from here we go sublime as Welsh almost wordlessly amplifies (and textures) the tension of Johnno and Spanner’s relationship while the music wallops around them. Macdonald is extra special in these final minutes, the actor finding something heartbreakingly human in a character who spends most of this movie rattling against his cage like a trapped animal. He’s feral, loving, desperate, and — we agree — the smartest person Johnno knows. We know he’ll never get the future he deserves, but no one can take this night away from him.

Grade: B

“Beats” is now playing in virtual cinemas through Music Box Films. 

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