Producer: Camilla Bray Director: Brian Welsh Screenplay: Kieran Hurley and Brian Welsh Stars: Cristian Ortega, Lorn MacDonald, Laura Fraser, Brian Ferguson, Amy Manson, Gemma McElhinney, Kevin Mains, Rachel Jackson, Ross Mann, Neil Leiper, Kevin Mains, Stephan McCole, Josh Whitelaw, Ryan Fletcher, Patrick McAlindon and Martin Donaghy Distributor: Music Box Films
Two mismatched best friends attend a big bash before one of them is scheduled to move away. That sounds like the scenario for one of those glossy, nostalgia-drenched Hollywood dramadies aimed at a mainstream audience; but “Beats” is a very different thing entirely—a gritty Scottish working-class tale told in accents so thick that English subtitles are supplied. Ultimately it’s also a crowd-pleaser of sorts, but not one that goes for easy, formulaic effect.
The narrative is set in 1994 against the backdrop of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act passed by John Major’s Tory government in the waning days of the Thatcher era, Though the bill sparked serious demonstrations, its passage was not opposed by the Labour Party, which was beginning its transformation into “New Labour” under the direction of then Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair. One of the particular objects of the act was to halt the unsanctioned raves that had become popular among rebellious youth in the early nineties; it allowed the use of police force to shut them down.
It’s in that context that the screenplay by Kieran Hurley and Brian Welsh, opened up from a one-man play by Hurley, introduces two fifteenth-year old pals in some council flats in the West Lothian region adjacent to Edinburgh. Johnno (Christian Ortega) lives there with his mother Alison (Laura Fraser), his younger brother, and his mother’s current partner Robert (Brian Ferguson), a policeman. Johnno is a withdrawn, studious, sad-faced kid, but he opens up with his childhood friend Spanner (Lorn MacDonald), a gangly, volatile fellow habitually humiliated by Fido (Neil Leiper), the older brother—and gang leader—who’s his supposed guardian.
The two boys are devoted to the liberation from their depressing circumstances provided by the wild, throbbing music played at raves by DJs like D-Man (Ross Mann)—which is made up of the “repetitive beats” that the Act of 1994 explicitly cites as sources of social dysfunction. When Spanner learns that Alison and Robert will shortly be moving the family to a newer, nicer apartment—partially to rescue Johnno from what they see as his malign influence—Spanner decides he and his buddy should find a way to go to a rave that D-Man is rumored to be planning.
Getting there involves connecting with a bunch of older rebels, mostly female (Amy Manson, Emma McElhinney, Rachel Jackson) but including one nasty guy, Les (Kevin Mains), who’s actually part of Fido’s crew. There are bumps along the way, but eventually, at just after the sixty-minute point, Spanner and Johnno are swallowed up in D-Man’s happening—an Ecstasy-fueled ten-minute explosion that Welsh and cinematographer Ben Kračun shoot in woozy, surrealistic style, bringing swaths of color into a film that until now has been almost entirely in black-and-white (apart from a few red lights on radio sets), along with some kaleidoscopic animation.
Of course, in accordance with the 1994 Act, the rave is invaded not only by Fido and his crew, who are after Spanner, but by a horde of heavily-armed cops, including Robert. In the ensuing melee Johnno is injured and taken into custody, and the meeting between him, Robert and Alison at the station house is a painful one that, in a series of captions preceding the final credits, has serious ramifications for the latter two’s relationship. But needless to say, the picture cannot close without a reunion between Johnno and Spanner—a lovely scene that has a bittersweet addendum in another of those closing captions.
Under Welsh’s exuberant direction, Ortega and MacDonald give vivid performances, the former’s soulfulness contrasting nicely with the latter’s abandon. The supporting cast offer equally committed performances, and the crafts crew—production designer Victor Molero and costumer Carole K. Fraser, along with Kračun—have done a fine job with period detail. Special credit has to be given to editor Robin Hill for the propulsion in the pacing, and of course to Keith McIvor (aka JD Twitch of the DJ duo Optimo), for the music mix. (The original music is by Stephen Hindman and Penelope Trappes.)
“Beats” could easily have succumbed to sappy formula, but by adding a touch of Ken Loach to the mix, Welsh has made it distinctive.