If you check out Beats this weekend, the latest from Scottish filmmaker Brian Welsh (from a play by Kieran Hurley, who co-wrote the script), it will help greatly if you’re a fan of the kind of thumping, driving house music prevalent at the kinds of illegal raves around which the film is centered. Not that it’s required; the story of two friends from a quiet small town looking for some excitement (and perhaps an escape from the toxic masculinity of their home life) is a pulsing, frenzied exploration of pushing boundaries, running right up to the edge and maybe, just maybe finding your way back from the brink.
Set in 1994 as the British government pushed through the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) are high schoolers with energy to spare. When we first meet them, they’re dancing it off to a new house track, Johnno in his room at the house he shares with his mom (Laura Fraser) and stepdad (Brian Ferguson), Spanner at the flat he lives in with his older brother Fido (Neil Leiper). The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was a reactionary bit of legislation designed to crack down on lifestyles the more conservative government didn’t approve of, including loud music, warehouse raves and underground radio. And of course, the best way to ramp up activities and forms of expression one doesn’t approve of is to try to outlaw them.
Johnno and Spanner couldn’t be more different. Quiet and well-meaning, Johnno is struggling to adjust to his new blended family, despite his parents’ best efforts make it a smooth transition. Spanner’s the bad boy, the friend Johnno’s parents see as a bad influence; it’s never explained where his parents are, but Fido certainly isn’t exactly a responsible adult presence in his life. But the two friends couldn’t be tighter, spending their free time together at an abandoned lot with fellow ravers and punks, drinking, smoking and causing the kind of low-grade trouble the impending law is meant to address. The plot thickens (clichéd but, in this instance, true) when the local police show up during one of their misfit hangs and none other than Johnno’s stepdad, Robert, emerges from the squad car. He pulls the lad aside for a bit of a talking to, but generally speaking, it’s a small infraction and Robert saves face.
But Spanner has a lead on a real, live rave, and if he and Johnno play their cards right they might just get to experience the very madness that’s about to become illegal. Together with a few friends from the scene, they make their way out to a secret location for the party. The journey there is it’s own kind of adventure, but they finally arrive and—after popping a couple pills to heighten the experience—the rave is on. Presented entirely in black and white, it’s as if Welsh wants to be sure the music is the most vibrant part of the proceedings. Throughout the duration of the rave, which gets its due as the film’s climactic center, the camera is in among the crowds, Johnno, Spanner and their friends sweating and thrashing and bonding and feeling. The music never stops (seriously, be prepared), and Welsh’s trippy imagery transcends the dance floor. It’s a night our duo won’t soon forget, even if it all goes awry when Robert and his fellow officers discover the rave and violently break it up.
With high highs come low lows, and life after the rave (and its messy conclusion) is bleak. But the friendship between Johnno and Spanner is stronger than ever. They’ve been through a lot in all the years they’ve known each other, most of it in the course of one crazy night at a rave. Ortega and Macdonald have a warm, youthful chemistry, the former bringing an innocence to Johnno and the later wired with an energy that’s surprisingly vulnerable. In the aftermath of the rave, the depth of their friendship becomes clear; by the time the credits roll (with a sweet coda for each character), so does Welsh’s ability to elevate teenagers’ propulsive, frantic energy into an ultimately touching story of connection and community.
Beats is now streaming as part of Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema. A portion of your rental goes to support the theater.