Johnno (Christian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) have been pals for life but Spanner is the kind of friend your parents warn you about. He comes from a home with no parental supervision, but a brutish older brother, Fido (Neil Leiper). As a result, Spanner acts without any authority figure to tell him otherwise and Johnno’s mother (Laura Fraser) would rather not let Spanner through their front door for a visit. Things get worse when Johnno’s new stepdad (Brian Ferguson) comes into the picture, a cop who must uphold the law against raves and rave culture. Soon, Johnno and his family will be moving away from where such things exist, a smaller, quieter suburb away from the likes of Spanner and his kind. Before the big move, though, Johnno and Spanner steal some money and enjoy one last night at a rave where they risk getting busted by cops while taking drugs that could impair their ability to deal with reality and listen to music their parents don’t understand, but which fills them with youthful joy.
So begins a beautifully photographed black-and-white odyssey that takes place over the course of an evening, in which our teenage protagonists discover new comfort zones, psychedelic trips, and that their heroes aren’t infallible. Welsh makes a point to highlight the importance of music and the power of mass communication by making the tiny, lit, red power button on the radios the only thing in color. It’s a beautiful touch that makes the device as important to them as smartphones are today. Throughout the film, in a series of misunderstandings and betrayals, Johnno and Spanner’s friendship is always put to the test (of course) but the rush of being in the moment as teenagers, and doing something they know could get them into heaps of trouble is never lost on them. It’s their time and they seize it; bruised, but elated.
Welsh’s frequently funny and moving “Beats” accomplishes a lot in its seemingly simple story of a fragile friendship. The “Footloose”-like law of the land will likely be an eye-opener for many viewers. Welsh and co-screenwriter Kieran Hurley (who wrote the original play upon which this is based) underline the absurdity of it by quoting the law word-for-word with an appropriate sneer and middle finger in its general direction. The unfortunate result of this law, when enforced, will likely remind viewers of news footage we see today. Yet, “Beats” never comes off too heavy-handed and remains mindful of its strengths.