Back home in Bogota, teen brothers Carly and Mateo — played by siblings (and Disney Channel veterans) Mateo and Moisés Arias — are metal-blasting, skateboard-riding punks, and reluctant partners in crime. Carly, the sensible one, can’t prevent Mateo from dynamiting a dollhouse. But he’ll swoop in, hair flapping like a vampire’s cape, to rescue his younger brother from the cops — and then scold Mateo himself. (Of the two actors, Moisés is actually 18 months older in real life, but channels convincing younger brother pique.)
“Blast Beat,” an earnest dual coming-of-age drama written and directed by Esteban Arango, who co-wrote the script with high school friend Erick Castrillion, monitors the brothers’ misfit adventures when their upper-middle-class family is forced to move from Colombia to the outskirts of Atlanta. Arango, a Colombian himself, emigrated to the states in the late ’90s, when the film is less-than-convincingly set. (At least Cannibal Corpse T-shirts are the eternal metalhead uniform.)
The boys don’t fit into the suburbs. Their classmates seem unable to find South America on the map, making it doubly insulting when bullies heckle them with, “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” (Playing Carly, Mateo Arias is so hirsute, he’s hard to accept as a senior.) Adding to the disorientation, the lovely Diane Guerrero plays his mother, but looks young enough to be his sister. At least the wobbles in the casting add to Arango’s driving theme of displacement for two young men already in the liminal space of last-stage adolescence. Carly and Mateo feel old enough to do anything except decide where to live. While their father Ernesto (Wilmer Valderrama) insists Georgia is the right move for their future, Arango is unconvinced, and angles “Blast Beat” as a side-eye to the assumption that every immigrant should be grateful to live in the States.
The film’s sincerity nearly balances its wonky plotting. Arango observes that America divides people into stereotypes of “good” and “bad” immigrants. Good immigrants, like Carly, are bright scholars who can contribute to the country. (Carly dreams of becoming a NASA engineer.) Bad immigrants, like aimless, artistic Mateo, are less welcome. No wonder the sullen kid thinks the American Dream feels more like a hangover.
Even within their family, the competitive siblings have sorted themselves into factions: Carly the Great Hope, Mateo the Rebel. However, when the American government knocks on their door, the brothers’ clashing self-identities could separate the family before they have a chance to blow it apart themselves. Unlike the other teens in their school, they don’t have the freedom to act dumb.
“Blast Beat” powers through its clichés by cranking up a soundtrack of Synapticide and the Eastside Boyz. As Carly, Mateo Arias has the soulful eyes of a martyr. He’s a compelling character — at once clever and ambitious, and destructive and immature, especially when failing to be straight with his quasi-girlfriend Mafe, played by Grammy-nominated singer Kali Uchis in a promising screen debut. By contrast, as the brother named Mateo, Moisés Arias is compact and shaved and wiry. He looks like both a child and an ancient warrior, depending on whether he’s at home sulking that Carlos got the better bedroom, or at the schoolyard determined to look tough.
The interesting duo also starred in Arango’s 2015 short of the same name, but in expanding that story, the feature has had to pad the running time with other characters who feel like pencil sketches, particularly Daniel Dae Kim as a college professor with a whiplash personality, and a few romantic interests played by Ava Capri, Ashley Jackson, and Nikki Harada who aren’t given enough material to feel like more than plot devices. “Blast Beat” cares far more about testing the limits of the family’s togetherness, and while the resolution doesn’t have the sweetness of a pop song, Arango is happy to settle for heavy metal discordance.