A snappy, scrappy, straining-at-the-leash coming-of-ager from bleakest Scotland, Brian Welsh’s “Beats” takes place in 1994 — two years before the release of “Trainspotting,” though 23 years on, it feels like something of an heir to Danny Boyle’s Nineties yardstick. The same spirit of raggedly exuberant, techno-pumped nihilism courses through both films. It’s something of a jolt, then, to realize that while Boyle’s film was an of-the-moment youth revolt, “Beats” is an alternately wistful and furious period piece — looking back at an unstable, exciting era of Cool Britannia and incipient cultural liberation that stalled somewhere along the way to Brexit Britain. That’s the subtext, at least: the surface is a rollicking buddy movie, both funny and stomach-churning as it follows two gawky 15-year-old lads seeking a debauched sendoff to childhood.
The liveliest work to date from Scottish writer-director Welsh (following the feature “In Our Name” and some prominent TV projects including “Black Mirror: The Entire History of You”), “Beats” will offer many British Generation X-ers a vivid trip down memory lane when it hits U.K. cinemas in May, though it’s not merely a cozy nostalgia exercise. Harsh class conflict and social inequality are very much to the fore in this grainy snapshot of the country at what was then the tail-end of Conservative Party rule; on those terms, even younger viewers who don’t remember the era may well relate to its characters’ bristling rage against the system. Abroad, arthouse distribution prospects for this near-simultaneous Rotterdam and Slamdance premiere will be enhanced by the blessing of executive producer Steven Soderbergh.
Effectively adapted (and aerated) by Welsh and Kieran Hurley from the latter’s stage play, “Beats” hinges on a fusty bit of government legislation introduced by the Tories in 1994: the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, a key clause of which cracked down on the U.K.’s burgeoning rave scene by banning music events “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” Widely derided by the public, the law’s pettiness encapsulates everything that techno-head Jonno (Cristian Ortega) and his loose-cannon best friend Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) feel oppressed by in their drab, impoverished West Lothian town.
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Jonno, a bright kid on track for a brighter future, is preparing to move away to safer suburban surrounds with his mother Alison (“Breaking Bad’s” Laura Fraser) and stepdad Robert (Brian Ferguson), a disciplinarian cop. Spanner’s prospects are grimmer, stuck as he is under the abusive guardianship of his criminal older brother Fido (Neil Leiper). The boys can see their paths are diverging — to the relief of Jonno’s elders, who declare the other boy “scum” and a “charity case” — but when word travels of an underground protest rave happening in their area, it seems the ideal last hurrah for a friendship already on borrowed time. Hooking up with a gaggle of older, cooler kids, they set out to trip the strobe light fantastic; inevitably, nothing goes quite to plan.
Everything’s winding reluctantly to a bitterswee end in this film, including the culture it so defiantly celebrates: “It’s a fag-end scene, it’s been done,” Spanner sighs, getting cold feet as the party looms. The reply, however, is obvious: “It’s not been done by us.” Within its familiar framework, Welsh and Hurley cram in a world of less generic human detail: “Beats” is particularly perceptive on internal social divisions within a council-estate class treated by politicians as uniform, poignantly embodied by Jonno and Spanner’s affectionate but drifting bond. Playing things with just the right blend of dopey naivete and doleful self-awareness, Ortega and Macdonald are an endearing double act: the former a sweet, anxious straight man to the latter’s gangly comic exclamation mark.
“Beats” proceeds to give a dying scene its euphoric due, in a dazzling digression from stage-based form. Ecstasy is taken, and the characters fade into the ether as music and image take over in an exhilarating, extended hallucinatory set piece, complete with bursting visuals from Weirdcore, the music video director behind celebrated clips for Aphex Twin and Radiohead. It’s an extravagant surge of style in a film hitherto shot in grungily straight-ahead fashion, with flashes of lurid color suddenly invading d.p. Ben Kracun’s roughly textured black-and-white lensing. Symbolically obvious it may be, but it’s a triumphant vision of a bigger, freer world than any the boys have known, against a positively blissful soundtrack for dance aficionados. “Repetitive beats” and all, it’s a display infectious enough to make you resent the government’s party-pooping all over again.