Chekhov’s Gun has never felt more ominous than as part of an arsenal on the wall of a lonely teenager’s bedroom in a slice-of-life movie about modern American high schoolers. In fact, it sometimes feels as if “Beast Beast” writer/director/composer Danny Madden has underestimated the dark cloud such a thing can cast over every inch of his story, even if the inevitability is so obviously the point (and even if the gun doesn’t go off when and where you assume it will).
On one hand, this jagged sketch of three young people intersecting in a Georgia suburb is so upsetting because it recognizes mass shootings as a fait accompli of life in the NRA’s United States; as a phenomenon that follows god-awful gun laws and online radicalization with the same meteorological certainty that thunder follows lightning. We see it coming before any of Madden’s characters do, and his film would be held together by our own nauseated helplessness even if it weren’t so percussive, well-acted, and perversely fun to watch. For better or worse, “Beast Beast” is closer in spirit to “Palo Alto” than “Elephant.”
On the other hand, the specter of violence looming over this low-key high school movie is much harder to ignore than the one that looms over American high schools in real life, distracting this story from the depth it needs to reward the grim ironies of its big twist. Introducing the massacre without any warning might have felt like an unearned cheap shot — the result of bad writing and fatally shortsighted thinking. But doesn’t it always? Maybe there’s just no way to win in a fucked-up country that never stops finding new ways to justify killing people.
And yet, all three of the main characters in Madden’s debut feature manage to eke out a measure of hope for the future. Krista (the wildly promising Shirley Chen, who also starred in the short that Madden made as a prototype for “Beast Beast”) is the type of girl who could squeeze water from a stone. An Asian-American theater kid we first meet during an acting class scene that bristles with the same feral energy that bubbled underneath “Madeline’s Madeline,” Krista is the nicest person you know — a pure soul who strangers resent for her guilelessness as much as friends cherish for her loyalty.
She’s the big talent among the wannabe actors at her school, but it’s a small town, and the film resists the temptation to make Krista seem like a future Broadway star. To a certain extent, all the major characters in “Beast Beast” are defined by the tension between self-worth and social (media) affirmation. Filipino skater kid Nito (an excellent and endearing Jose Angeles) is the flip-side of that particular coin, as his YouTube videos have made him something of a low-key sensation — 2.5 million views is enough to make the girls whisper about him in the hallway — but his deadbeat dad won’t even let him through the front door at the rundown apartment complex where they live.
Nito is another kind soul, and he and Krista spark a natural chemistry after they’re assigned adjacent lockers; a chemistry galvanized when Nito squares off against a rapey douchebag in a house-party scene Madden captures with all the explosive domestic chaos of the Vernita Green fight in “Kill Bill.” The film’s watchfully restless handheld style lends to moments that ignite like flashbulb memories in the making, and “Beast Beast” makes the most of the teenage feeling that every night is ripe for misadventure. That isn’t great news for Nito, as suburban Georgia can be an unkind place for an open-hearted brown kid with no family and some bad new friends (including a volatile single mother played by standout Anissa Matlock).
Adam (Will Madden) can’t fall back on the same excuse for the trouble he causes. A gawky white graduate struggling to find a job that might satisfy his somewhat affluent Boomer parents — infer what you will from the American flag they fly out of their driveway — Adam’s big idea is to become a firearms influencer by filming himself messing around with guns in the woods. Maybe it’s not quite the recipe for disaster it sounds like; Adam seems like a responsible kid, and it’s weirdly reassuring when he insists that he’s trying to teach his viewers about the history of weapons and how to use them correctly. But he doesn’t really have any viewers, and the only people who do stumble across his content tend to troll him in the comments. It’s a dangerous business to base too much of your personal value on the opinions of strangers, and it doesn’t get any safer when you add guns into the mix.
Again, this doesn’t play out quite like you imagine it will — the way these three stories knot together is more banal and contrived than the kind of storytelling “Beast Beast” seems capable of until that point. But the crisis that collects everyone in the same place arrives well before Madden is able to flesh out the many ways in which the internet has disassociated his ultra-believable young characters from themselves. The movie is too smart to chalk it all up to a generational need for affirmation, but the argument never gets more nuanced than that by the time Madden skips forward and starts drinking from the poisoned chalice of social media success.
Chen is extraordinary in a third act that strips Krista down to the bone, and it’s easy to imagine how this entire movie would’ve fallen apart with a lesser actress to steer it home. Yet there’s nothing she can do to solve how discombobulating it is to watch “Beast Beast” pivot from warmly observational docudrama to ice-cold neo-noir thriller. Madden is a skilled filmmaker in both modes, but his debut feature isn’t built to support a bridge between them, and the entire film winds up too unstable to get us to the other side of the mess it depicts. If there is a valuable movie to be made in the wake of America’s most recent wave of mass shootings, “Beast Beast” offers only tantalizing hints of what it might look like. And yet Madden’s eye is nevertheless sharp enough to draw some blood; the kids are alright, they’ve just had the bad luck of being raised in a country that can’t seem to give a shit why so many of them don’t survive to become adults.
“Beast Beast” opens in select theaters on Friday, April 16. It will be available on VOD starting Friday, May 4.
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