Film Review | Beats: (Never) Beaten into submission

Adapting the play of the same name by Kieran Hurley, director Brian Welsh weaves an endearing coming of age story that skimps on neither grit nor heart

There’s something perennially appealing about the coming of age story. Even if the category of ‘teenager’ was invented only as recently as the mid-20th century, the foibles of young adulthood hold a magnetic fascination. Children look forward to having access to the transgressive hedonistic joy the period – as depicted in media – promises, teenagers themselves, self-conscious as ever, enjoy seeing themselves on screen (for reasons of instruction as well as narcissism) and adults can look back fondly on the crazier, looser times before we’ve all had to buck up and join up with the system we so fondly kicked back against during those revelatory, crucial years.

But universality in storytelling can be a double-edged sword. Used well, it lends an electric charge of recognition that can resonate with audiences far and wide… but if wielded poorly it simply gives way to staid tropes and assumptions that dry out into mind-numbing cliche before the story can even get going.

As luck would have it, Beats, adapted by director Brian Welsh and Kieran Hurley from Hurley’s original stage play, plants an instantly recognisable tale of ‘opposites attract’ friendships in the midst of the highly specific setting of 1994 Glasgow.

Our buddy double act is made up of the techno-music loving duo of Johnno (Cristian Ortega) – a shy supermarket employee whose mother, Alison (Laura Fraser) has just begun dating a local policeman, Robert (Brian Ferguson), with both adults keen to move out of the projects and into more gentrified surroundings – and the far more manic Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), living under the yoke of his drug dealer brother, Fido (Neil Leiper) but possessed with a lust for life that Johnno can’t but help find attractive. However, neither of Johnno’s parent figures approve of Spanner and all that his presence implies –including a predilection for now-illegal techno-rave parties – and see their inevitable separation as the cherry on the cake of their imminent move to ostensibly greener pastures.

But as a micro-revolution begins to brew in the local underground techno scene, Spanner decides to jail break his best friend out of his cushy, aspirationally lower-middle class surroundings to partake in what promises to be an unforgettable rave party, spearheaded by the revolutionary pirate radio DJ ‘D-Man’ (Ross Mann) and very, very much illegal.

Both the play and the film take as their starting point the absurd-sounding ‘1994 Criminal Justice Act’, which outlawed “public gatherings around amplified music characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. An authoritarian move that is manna to an already riled-up small army of frustrated teenagers with a passion for the sounds of the dynamic early-nineties electronic music scene in Britain. Cleverly, the film pairs this with the overarching political drive of Tony Blair’s New Labour, whose manifesto is heard in snatched snippets as Johnno’s family gathers around the dinner table, its adult counterparts seemingly relieved to hear the aspirational potential of Blair’s promises.

But Beats is not a story smothered by politics, nor does it pornographically dwell on the ‘kitchen sink’ trappings of its economically marginal characters. Shot in black and white but brimming with vivid life – and breaking its cinematographic rule to allow an appropriate and extended burst of psychedelic colour at a crucial moment – it invites us to meet Johnno and Spanner on their own terms, revelling in their pranks and the agonies and ecstasies of teenage bonding. As flip-side archetypes of the teenage experience, both Ortega and Macdonald are perfectly cast; Ortega the puppy-eyed kid too scared to fully come out of his shell, with the wiry, angular Macdonald embodying the pumped-up trickster to a T.

The verdict

An instantly-appealing central concept executed with both verve and sensitivity on screen, Beats speaks to the rebellious teen inside us all, while deftly navigating some of the more cringe-worthy pitfalls of the ‘youth film’ genre. The firmly localised scope – allowing for immersion through specificity – is balanced out by a universal story of friendship and social transgression, whose streak of frankness and humour gives an apposite throbbing tempo the proceedings.

Beats will be screening at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema, St James Cavalier, Valletta on June 26 at 7.30pm, June 29 at 9pm and July 2 at 7.30pm.