It’s 1994. Socially awkward Jonno only feels comfortable in his skin when he’s dancing, and his mate Spanner is determined to get the pair into a protest rave: the government has just passed the Criminal Justice Bill, which criminalises “gatherings around music wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. This turn of phrase comes up again and again in Beats, which is adapted from Kieran Hurley’s one-man (and a DJ) show into an absolute firecracker of a movie.
Unlike that stifling stagebound feeling of many theatrical adaptations, Beats is a burst of energy, filled with shell suits shot in monochrome that hark back to La Haine, and a visual rhythm that complements Hurley’s toying with Scottish dialect. It’s full of details that capture the energy and anxiety of partying, like the way Spanner holds a bag of cans with a certain determination, how he and Jonno awkwardly sit on the floor together when they make it to the pre-drinks. The two young men are put at odds, with one about to move into a new build while the other is trapped in an abusive home, a few clips of Blair we overhear on tv remind us that New Labour was about to try papering over the walls and put a happy face on widening divisions.
There is a far more overtly political film at the margins of Beats, which, for director Brian Welsh, is secondary to depicting the euphoric rush of adolescence. Some of the plot beats, from a disapproving cop step-dad, to the threat of a beating from Spanner’s drug-dealing older brother, will seem familiar, but Welsh and Hurley are smartly interrogating the lines of the social and establishment divide through the framework of the teen movie.
When we finally reach the rave, the director treats us to an expansive psychedelic sequence connecting otherworldly images with urban decay, which gives way into a moment of terrifying escalation as several plot threads converge. The comedown is harsh, but the viewer is left with the thrill of memory, having witnessed something special.
Whether cinemagoers are nostalgic for the 90s, or just coming of age themselves, Beats might be the ultimate summer movie, dragging the party atmosphere of Dazed and Confused or Human Traffic across the northern border, and ultimately finding a rare emotional truthfulness.
Beats is released in select cinemas on 17th May 2019.
Watch the trailer for Beats here: