Friday, June 26, 2020

BEATS: Those Raving Kids

It’s like a Scottish techno Footloose, but neither of these two losers will be dancing with a girl. Instead, they just want to enjoy a little techno and exert a tiny measure of control over their lives. The latter will definitely be the trickier part for luckless Johnno and Spanner in Brian Welsh’s BEATS, which opens virtually today.

Johnno is a passive little “wee man,” who would be relentlessly bullied at school, were it not for his lunkheaded best pal, Spanner. Unfortunately, Spanner lives on the even more wrong side of the tracks with his abusive drug-dealing older brother, Fido. Johnno’s mum Alison has always been against their friendship, so she is happy their upcoming move will break the lads up for good. They will be making a bid for polite respectability moving in Robert, her boyfriend, a buttoned-down copper.

Of course, Johnno has given into to inevitability of his fate, but he has resisted telling Spanner, because of his aversion to conflict. When Alison abruptly lets the cat out of the bag, Johnno reluctantly agrees to one last hurrah. Fittingly, Spanner has purchased tickets for a much-anticipated rave, where they can finally hear their beloved techno beats in the manner they were intended to be experienced. To cover the costs, he stole from the thuggish Fido, so yes, that could be an issue later.

owever, this will not just be any rave. It is also a political statement, as pirate radio DJ “D-Man” constantly explains. The year is 1994, so raves like this are technically no longer legal. The recently passed Criminal Justice Public Order Act has provisions cracking down on such events. Most notoriously, it contains a provision prohibiting “gatherings of 20 or more people,” centered around music dominated by the “emission of a succession of beats.” Sure, that sounds absurdly schoolmarmish, but when you think about it, the Act was just 26 years ahead of its time. (Back then, ravers had a habit of descending uninvited on farmland just outside of towns and leaving it in ruins, much to the owners’ vexation, but we’re sure Spanner and D-Man cleaned up after themselves, right?)

In fact, the raving as activism motif is so relentlessly over-played, it starts to give the film a ridiculously self-important tone. The brave young demonstrators in Hong Kong protesting against the CCP’s National Security and Extradition bills are real activists, with admirable principles. Spanner and Johnno just want to drop acid and bob their heads.

It is also exhausting to watch Cristian Ortega playing Johnno as such a cringy doormat. Even Albert Schweitzer would feel compelled to bully this kid. However, Lorn McDonald is far and away the film’s saving grace, for his energetic yet surprisingly sensitive portrayal of Spanner. It is keenly expressive work that still rings out his full meatheadedness. The film is almost exclusively focused on the lads’ bromance, but Rachel Jackson and Gemma McIlhenny really stand out positively, for the attitude and grounded humanity they bring as Wendy and Laura, two young women the boys fall in with, on their way to the rave.

Welsh and co-screenwriter Kieran Hurley (adapting his own play) deserve credit for sticking the dismount, but getting there takes far too long. Ben Kracun’s black-and-white cinematography is appealingly nostalgic, but the grim recreation of 1990s West Lothian does not inspire much wistfulness (or confidence in local Holyrood governance). It will probably have greater resonance for those who were deep into the rave scene, but the rest of straight arrows will just find it an inconsistent combination of melancholy and loudness. Only recommended for the former, BEATS releases virtually today (6/26).