Beats review: Pills, thrills and belly laughs with a shot of nostalgia

Scottish drama Beats captures the untrammelled hedonism and joyous chaos of the Nineties rave scene in all its grubby glory – but as Cath Clarke finds out, the comedown is messy

Is there a German compound noun for the euphoric feeling of being a teenager on a dancefloor and knowing that you’re exactly where you’re meant to be? If not, this movie from the Scottish director Brian Welsh about a pair of West Lothian lads desperate to make it to an illegal rave in the mid-Nineties will do the job. Beats is a kind of B-side to Trainspotting: the recreational drugs edit. It’s a film with pills, thrills and belly laughs – nostalgic and sentimental in all the right places, with some grittily effective social realism and fine examples of the artistry of Scottish swearing: “Fuck off you fuck-nugget”.

Welsh directs from a screenplay he wrote with Kieran Hurley based on the latter’s one-man play. Cristian Ortega (spookily, he’s the spit of a young Jonny Lee Miller) plays Johnno, a quiet, angsty lad who lives mostly inside his own head. His mum and stepdad have bought a new-build house in the suburbs, but Johnno can’t bring himself to tell his best mate Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) that he’s leaving. A skinny kid with a shaved head and big jutty-out ears, the world has already written off Spanner as a lost cause. Mainly because his big brother is local headcase Fido (Neil Leiper, lean like a fighting dog). The two or three scenes in their house are harrowing and heartbreaking. Johnno is the only person who sees how bright Spanner is, how vulnerable. There’s a puppy-dog loveliness to their friendship.

Pure prison-grade psychopath,

A bank of TV screens in a shop sets the scene. It’s 1994 and Tony Blair, newly elected opposition leader, addresses the Labour Party conference all smiles and sun-lit optimism about the bright future of meritocratic Britain. On another screen protesters march against the Tories’ Criminal Justice Bill, which gives police the power to shut down illegal raves. And it’s an illegal rave that Johnno and Spanner head to, recklessly stealing a wad of cash from Fido, who is the film’s Begbie – scarier than Begbie possibly, because there is zero humour about him, just pure prison-grade psychopath.

It’s hard to believe now that in the days before the internet, caners managed to navigate themselves to raves at secret locations, following rubbish directions left on an answer machine. A pirate radio station DJ puts the call out. “Prepare to drop the fuck out.” Johnno and Spanner join the convoy of cars to a field in the middle of nowhere. Fido is on their case, twitching with rage. The police, too, are close by, with orders to shut down the party.

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Club scenes in movies are usually excruciating in their awfulness. But Welsh and his actors get inside that moment of feeling like you are part something big and beautiful. But in the end this is one big long break-up movie. Johnno is moving on. Partying over, he’ll choose life – college, decent job, a future. And what of Spanner? Lurking under the euphoric high, there is a pessimism here, a bitter disappointment in New Labour’s undelivered promises. Things won’t get better for Spanner. He is trapped.

What an impressive film this is. It has the look and feel of an instant classic. Oh, and it’s shot in black and white – because of budget constraints or for the nostalgia factor? Who knows, but it looks cool.

Beats is in cinemas from May 17