Writer-director Danny Madden’s “Beast Beast” clatters to life with organic percussion: a stick rat-a-tatting against an iron fence, a skateboard scraping on concrete, a rifle pinging bullets against a defenseless tin plate. Together, these sounds combine into jazz, despite the discordance of the three teens making such a ruckus. Krista (Shirley Chen), the stick thwacker, is a squeaky-perfect theater geek strolling through the suburbs. Nito (Jose Angeles), the skater, sleeps on a mattress on the floor when his father deigns to let him in the apartment. And recently graduated gun-nut Adam (played by Will Madden, the director’s younger brother) is frustrated that his target-shooting videos are only getting 46 views – exponentially less than he needs to convince his parents that he’s got a real job.
What connects them is a need to be seen, accepted and applauded. Throw a spitball at any fellow Panther classmate, and they’ll feel the same. Krista, Nito and Adam are universal in their ordinariness, even in how each performs for the internet hoping to become exceptional.
When the image-conscious trio eventually – finally – intersect, it’s a fluke. “Beast Beast’s” plot twist is a swing at gravitas that disrupts the balance of Madden’s naturalistic character study. This is the way teen life is, Madden says, until suddenly the film accelerates from reality to sensationalism, and trades humanity for pulp. Even in the noir climax, “Beast Beast’s” ideas about validation and integrity are worth a grapple. If only the film’s own self-identity was more grounded.
“Beast Beasts’s” lead characters aren’t poised for fame. In Krista’s play rehearsals, her grin is phony and her anger is callow. She’s taken too many selfies to tap into real emotion. Yet Krista vibrates with the need to entertain, as does Adam, slender as a saber in his chinos and polo shirts, who suffers when people ignore his YouTube show “Prime Shooter,” and roils when a commenter calls him a dork.
Only Nito, exuberantly embodied by Angeles, bursts with raw talent. The parkour athlete is so gifted that he causally leaps over a car instead of walking around it. (One of Angeles’ IRL skateboarding videos has racked up 2.5 million views on YouTube.) Given opportunities and proper watering, he could grow up to be a superhero. Instead, he drifts into a friendship with shoplifting stoners who try to mold him into a super villain. The standout of the goon squad is Anissa Matlock, who plays vape-smoking single mother Lena with such conviction you could believe she stumbled onto the film set and demanded a ride to the mall.
Madden has a sense of humor about the social media age. He watches Adam shoot take after take of his sign-off, sweating to sound casual. Sick of being trounced by his rival, a YouTube channel called ShootinTHANGS that blows up propane tanks, he studies a viral video about how to make a viral video, an ouroboros of attention-seeking that looks even more shallow when Kristian Zuniga’s camera zooms into Adam’s eyes, lit coldly by computer screen. Ironically, notes Madden, Adam’s obsession with being liked has become isolating. He can’t even invite a cameraman, after the last one shot rifles at the highway and cut off his head in the frame.
Adam gets his notoriety. So, too, do Krista and Nito in ways none of them planned. Yet in its final act, “Beast Beast” draws the distinction between fame and finesse. Only one of the three will deepen into a true artist. Was the price too high? Absolutely. But Madden believes all teenagers are tithing to social media. And while that anti-internet message is no revelation, there’s enough promising craft in this film that Madden may become an artist himself.