Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Gang violence in urban sprawls is seemingly unshakable, and about as a relative as throwing an empty beer bottle and having it land near a liquor store. Reports of neighborhood shootings flood airwaves and get a few inches of newspaper space. This has become normal when it clearly is abnormal.
August Monroe (Khalil Everage) would know.
In the opening moments of Netflix’s BEATS, one second he’s walking in Chicago’s South Side, talking to his older sister, Kari (Megan Sousa), who’s come to get him home for dinner, and then pop – a gangbanger opens fire striking his sister dead. The bullet was meant for him, for urinating on a wall tagged by the gang. A provocation that ends with a senseless killing. Eighteen months later, August is still tormented by that night. Consumed by post-traumatic stress and agoraphobia, he’s a recluse, sitting in his room all day mixing hip-hop beats, just like he did with his sister. The world fades away, while the music fades up and reverberates around him.
August’s musical abilities attract the attention of Romelo Reese (Anthony Anderson), a security guard at the high school he should be attending if it weren’t for debilitating panic attacks. The school is in a budget crisis and needs every available student in attendance. Romelo plays an attendance officer and goes to tracking down no-shows. When he hears the beats through August’s apartment walls, memories of his time hustling as a music producer start to stir. Seeing an opportunity to get back in the music game, Romelo persists in getting the kid’s attention. He offers guidance on crafting a great hip-hop beat in concert to August’s overbearing mother, Carla (Uzo Aduba), being away at work.
BEATS works best when the focus is on August’s grief and his growth. In one scene, he is sitting by a stovetop, Kari next to him making a grilled-cheese sandwich. It feels authentic, until Carla walks into the apartment, the smoke alarm blaring and plumes wafting through the kitchen. August lost sight of what he was doing – another reminder of how much his sister meant to him. Little moments like this, or August’s emotional breakdown after a nearly-combustible climax involving him, Romelo, Carla, and Chicago’s finest, help to offset what is a fairly predictable drama.
Everage gives a breakthrough performance that is only upstaged by the film’s most experienced performer, Anthony Anderson. But Romelo is a smooth-talking stereotype. Former success now disgrace that sees an opportunity he can take advantage. Romelo may be earnest in wanting August to succeed beyond apartment walls and free himself from the fear of the streets instilled by his mother, but the arc his character charts (and August as well) is a path already seen. Had Romelo been upfront at the start the story could have sidestepped the need to hide plot points that only lead to narrative chaos in the final act.
Script issues notwithstanding, the acting gives mad props to holding BEATS up. The mentor-mentee chemistry between Everage and Anderson allows for some of the best observances in character. When August tells Romelo that his mother says to not speak with him, Romelo responds with, “Man, Harriet Tubman wasn’t supposed to run. Doesn’t make it a bad idea.” Touché. The rest of the ensemble also puts in strong work, particularly Uzo Aduba as the mother. A little more time with her and Everage would have helped to flesh out their relationship. Instead, we settle for bullet points. Even Ashley Jackson, who plays August’s romantic interest – in a subplot that is handled haphazardly – has a standout moment in trying to coerce him from his bedroom to experience life outside after dark.
BEATS is a movie that plays like a record stuck in a groove. Like August, it rarely leaves its surroundings. But when the familiarity of the story fades away, that’s when it is at its best.
BEATS is now available on Netflix.