Every generation uses music as a way to convey feelings in instances when words simply will not suffice. It is in mid-90s Scotland where we find two friends with a lot of big feelings living in a society that is trying to suppress one of their primary outlets of expression. Johnno (Cristian Ortega) is a reserved teenager from a nice enough family who is introduced while thrashing around his room, phone in hand, to the local pirate radio station as pulse-pumping rave music blasts from the speakers. Dancing on the other end of that receiver is Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), Johnno’s best friend who comes from a family whose reputation is pretty much garbage within the community. The two are trying to enjoy the last gasps of a movement that is being trounced upon by the government. The United Kingdom’s 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act has just been passed in an effort to cut rave culture off at the knees. Under this proclamation, gatherings of 20 or more people for the purpose of consuming music characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats is strictly prohibited. Older generations never seem to understand the youth culture of the time, and taking away this music is taking away an identity.
The fight against their music is not the only major change occurring to this friendship. Johnno’s stern, yet loving, mother, Alison (Laura Fraser, Breaking Bad), is dating a milquetoast policeman, Robert (Brian Ferguson), who has convinced her to move the family to a traditional suburb that is more suitable and safe for a family on this rise. The move would also conveniently get Johnno away from Spanner, who serves as a consistent nuisance to the family in their eyes. Before he is taken away from everything he knows, Johnno and Spanner decide to have one last night out with an assortment of friends at an underground rave that is flying in the face of every government ordinance. They do not have much in the way of real power, as they are burdened with knowing their lot in life is all but predetermined, but they can still carve out a place for themselves if they can make it to this gathering.
But it is not truly about making it to the rave, is it? Their lives are going to keep heading down their respective paths no matter how memorable a night they share. Johnno is going to be expected to fall into the cookie-cutter middle class existence where a unique personality is barely tolerated, much less appreciated. The outlook is even bleaker for Spanner, as his only semblance of a family is his ex-con brother, Fido (Neil Leiper), who gleefully terrorizes him as often as he gets the chance. The night is about celebrating a friendship before real life hits you like a load of bricks. The film hints at potential interests for Johnno aside from Spanner in the form of an older crush, Laura (Gemma McElhinney), who suffers with an abusive boyfriend, but the film seems content to focus on the relationship between Johnno and Spanner. The film loses a bit of its propulsive energy in the second act as the focus spreads a bit more, but the transcendent joy radiating from the screen as we reach the climax makes up for any minor missteps.
Beats expertly conjures a believable sense of time and space with its beautiful black and white cinematography. The use of relatively unknown actors lends weight to the idea that this is an undiscovered relic from the heart of the 1990s. Cristian Ortega and Lorn Macdonald effortlessly inhabit these disaffected teens in a manner that realistically conveys the helplessness of those who serve at the whim of a greater authority. The music that is supplied by JD Twitch, along with a large swath of rave-centric tracks from the time period, shines a light on the conflict within the boys that defies description. Music is the lifeblood for the characters, and for the movie itself. There are moments of imperfection, but the movie soars when it delicately explores how it feels to be connected to another through friendship. Beats is a love letter to the tiny moment when you truly feel free.
Beats is now playing in virtual cinemas through Music Box Films.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.