Glasgow Film Festival review: Beats

Johnno (Christian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) in Beats
Johnno (Christian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) in Beats
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Having kicked off with Jonah Hill’s somewhat nostalgic LA-set skateboarding coming-of-age drama Mid90s, this year’s Glasgow Film Festival demonstrated an amusing synchronicity by drawing to a close with the UK premiere of Beats — a Scottish coming-of-age drama also set in the mid-1990s and echoing many of the same themes and plot turns.

Beats, Glasgow Film Theatre, ***

Set specifically in 1994, the year in which the Criminal Justice Bill signalled the end of free-party era of illegal raves, the Brian Welsh-directed film (he co-adapted it with Kieran Hurley from Hurley’s hit play of the same name) zeroes in on straight-laced teenager Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and his wild-card best friend Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) as they seek out their first rave as a way of cementing their friendship before their lives take divergent paths.

Despite it being set in the Central Belt, American connections are present in the way the film structurally riffs on single-night coming-of-age odysseys such as American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused and Jonah Hill’s own breakthrough film Superbad — though the decision to shoot in black and white also evokes the specific period cinematically by bringing to mind the 1990s French urban classic La Haine.

Beats isn’t as harsh as that film. Even if the council-estate-dwelling Spanner’s relationship with his violent and abusive older brother does takes some dark turns, they’re offset by the awkward sweetness of his relationship with Johnno and the fraternal love they clearly feel for each other. Indeed, the choice to go monochrome feels more like a way of simultaneously mythologising the characters youth while interrogating the false optimism of a period in which Tony Blair (a frequent presence on TVs in the background of several scenes) courted the nostalgic hedonism of Brit Pop while also trying to criminalise members of the same generation whose music and drugs of choice the New Labour establishment didn’t understand.

The film is at its best when it’s communicating these ideas visually. As with a lot of films about youthful rebellion, conveying idealistic anti-authoritarianism in anything other than cringe-worthy platitudes can prove difficult and that’s evident (albeit true to the characters) in some of the scenes where Johnno and Spanner insinuate themselves into a cooler, older crowd who are plugged-in enough to know where and when raves happen and are intent on articulating why what they’re doing matters.

Here, the film also replicates for posterity an immediate pre-internet age of taped-from-radio mix-tapes, pirate DJs and elaborately organised nights out. Yet it’s really when Welsh transforms the final act into an extended abstract rave sequence – replete with the movie’s only flashes of colour – that the film fully comes into its own, transcending the familiar elements of the genre to capture the ephemeral nature of this scene in all its blissed-out, impossible-to-sustain glory. - Alistair Harkness