Beats is a story about the mental health of a teenage boy named August (Khalil Everage) who recently witnessed his sister’s murder. Chris Robinson directed the film based on a screenplay by Miles Orion Feldsott. Stars such as Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) and Anthony Anderson (Black-ish) anchor the movie as the two main adult figures in August’s life.
Nearly the same age, August and his sister Kari (Megan Sousa) grow up with a mutual affinity and talent for music until Kari is murdered while August witnesses. The film chronicles the aftermath of her murder, specifically the mental and emotional toll it takes on not only August, but his mother Carla (Aduba) as well. One constant comfort as August navigates his trauma is his love of music, previously shared between him and his sister. The viewer is allowed glimpses into the way music transports August to his sister as if he’s able to cross a spiritual plane by making beats.
Anthony Anderson enters as Romelo, the security guard of August’s school, who takes a vested, if a little creepy and inappropriate, interest in August’s musical abilities. We first see August and Romelo interact when Romelo visits August’s home. August is struck with fear and anxiety and almost immediately launches into a panic attack. Their second encounter goes much the same, except August rightfully threatens to call the police on Romelo for trespassing on his property. “Just have an hour to talk music before they get here,” Romelo comments sardonically. The quote serves as a sharp reminder that police response time is slower in neighborhoods where people of color live as opposed to neighborhoods where more white people live. The point is further driven home when the viewer learns that August’s father died of a heart attack while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. This story is personal for many black families who have lost a loved one due to inadequate, inequitable healthcare.
August slowly attempts to reclaim bits and pieces of his life within the confines of his home and without the aid of a mental health professional. While attempting to cook a grilled cheese sandwich, August is struck immobile as he loses himself in memories of his sister and the trauma he’s experiencing. Carla returns home surprised and terrified to find her son sitting next to a thick cloud of smoke on the stove as his sandwich burns. In addition to panic attacks that he describes as, “nightmares, but you’re awake,” August also experiences occasional disassociation.
Eventually, August mitigates his symptoms enough to leave his home with the help of Romelo who has morphed into a supportive staff member in August’s life. Almost immediately August is struck with a panic attack in the fresh air as Romelo’s voice distorts around him. It’s a great way to show the disconnect that occurs during a panic attack. Many who experience panic attacks report similar distortions.
August develops a love interest throughout the film, Niyah (Ashley Jackson). Initially friends, August relegates himself to watching Niyah walk home from school via his window daily until he begins to go outside again. August confesses to Niyah that he wrote a song for her, and they’re able to spend more time together at a party Romelo invites August to in order to get his name and music in front of an audience. Their budding romance suffers from August’s mental health, specifically his agoraphobia. After having his life threatened by Laz (Evan J. Simpson), a mutual friend, August fails to leave the house to attend prom, to Niyah’s upset. In an emotional bid for August to take control of his life again, Niyah reminds him that death in Chicago is common and he has to continue to live his life.
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching moment of the film is between Carla and Romelo, and then the police. Concerned with her son’s safety, Carla called the police to her home when she arrived to find August missing. August, Niyah, and Romelo walk up moments later from a party Romelo took the children to. Carla confronts Romelo about the inappropriate amount of time he’s spending with August and activities he’s introducing August to. As the argument progresses, Carla lunges for Romelo, and police take matters into their own hands and arrest both Carla and Romelo in front of August. As Romelo is being shoved face first into the metal police car and handcuffed, he insists arresting Carla is unwarranted.
As the film progresses, the viewer’s Spidey Senses tingle more and more when it comes to Romelo. His ex-wife, school principal Vanessa Robinson (Emayatzy Corinealdi), accuses him of wanting to further August’s career for this own personal gain, and his motives thus far prove this point. Previously, Romelo had signed another artist before things went south, and now Romelo is security guard instead of a music manager like one of his former colleagues, Terrence. It’s blink and you miss it, but Romelo’s story is one that could be read many ways. While visiting Ill Note Records, Romelo is struck with envy but the viewer learns it’s because Romelo put Terrence on. Then he fell off himself, and as he’s trying to climb back up, the very people he’s helped have slammed the doors of their ivory tower in his face. A different take—Terrence is a white man flourishing in hip-hop while the black man who networked within the community to build a name for Terrence and himself now has to rebuild his name while Terrence continues to flourish.
Romelo attempts to restore his name with August’s talent, and it all comes to a head when August and Carla sign a bogus contract Romelo set up for them. Romelo burns the contract before August’s fate is decided for him, but August is predictably devastated that the one person he’s built trust in since experiencing trauma betrayed him.
Taking things slow is an overarching theme of Beats and the film concludes with August not only immersing himself in his community again, but also re-enrolling in school. “I’m happy to see you!” principal Vanessa expresses when she lays eyes on him for the first time in nearly a year. He’s finally mixed Kari’s voice suitably after working on it for the same length of time, and he’s working in an actual studio with Romelo. The viewer is able to observe how the trajectory of August’s recovery was altered by Romelo. The final scene fades to black and both August and the audience are left with the reminder to take life slow, one day at a time. Life is about progress and bettering ourselves, not perfection or instant gratification.
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