Beast Beast is an admirable and sobering look at teenage life in the United States, one that treats the looming specter of gun violence as a tragic inevitability. The film follows three young people from different backgrounds and circumstances who are growing up in a country that sensationalizes violence and does little to nothing to prevent it, and how the consequences of that eventually shatters their lives in ways that far too many continue to experience firsthand.
But writer and director Danny Madden isn’t seeking to convey all this in a dour and hopeless way, nor does his film ever come across as an overly preachy PSA about the need for gun control. The sorrow of Beast Beast is flanked by a first half that’s airy and sweet and an ending that – while maybe a bit controversial – suggests hope and healing in the wake of rage and injustice. It’s the film’s score that keeps a sense of unease about it, with the sounds of ominous chimes playing throughout even the more joyful moments, and serving as a constant reminder that the initial bliss is on a collision course with tragedy.
Beast Beast tells three separate stories that wind up intersecting – a popular and bubbly theatre student named Krista (Shirley Chen), a new student with a passion for skateboarding named Nito (Jose Angeles), and a slightly older graduate named Adam (Will Madden) who spends his days hunched over his computer at his parents’ house. When Nito arrives at school, he’s assigned a locker that is adjacent to Krista’s, and the two quickly hit it off. Krista lives in one of the nicer neighborhoods in town and is the star of the school’s theatre department, her bright and optimistic personality is infectious to anyone around her. Nito lives in a more impoverished area with a neglectful father, but is still fueled more by positivity and kindness than resentfulness; this general enthusiasm for life is what brings the two young lovers together.
Adam, meanwhile, is a gun enthusiast who makes videos for his YouTube channel wherein he explains gun history, safety, and usage as he fires his collection off in the woods. The way that his story will cross paths with Krista and Nito’s is grimly obvious, but the film avoids turning Adam into an unlikable caricature – proposing that he is a victim in his own way. Specifically, of the violent and gun-loving culture he was raised in. Adam appears to have a genuine desire to use his videos to educate, and refuses to make his content flashy and fun just for the sake of views. But this noble attitude doesn’t get him much attention, and the little he does receive often comes in the form of trolling, which Adam fixates on and fumes over. It’s a recipe for disaster, further punctuated by a set of parents who are well-meaning but can’t ever seem to reach him.
When Nito is suspended from school after getting in a brawl at a party – a scene that showcases both Madden’s excellent direction and cinematographer Kristian Zuniga’s impeccable camera work – he starts hanging out with a less-than-desirable crowd that engages in petty theft throughout town. Nito is hesitant towards some of their adventures, but they’re not exactly bad people and provide a sense of belonging. The carefree and bright-eyed feeling of adolescence carries the film into a predetermined and devastating point in a shocking bit of violence that flips the initial low-key style on its head, and leaves the characters to deal with the aftermath.
The drastic shift in tone for Beast Beast’s third act is one of its most impressive feats, in large part due to Chen’s performance. Her turn from cheerful and loving to withdrawn, angry, and resentful is the film’s pivotal piece in shaping its story about the effects of avoidable violence and how it begets even further violence and hate. The depressing reality of the United States’ inability to reign in its unique problem with firearms is on full display, and Madden presents the bleak normalization of it while also emphasizing how these events – as commonplace and numbing as they have become – are still horrifying and do in fact have consequences.
Much like recent stories of racial and societal injustices, it’s a bit redundant to call a film like this topical, even as it comes out in a time where mass shootings in the U.S. appear to be hitting an unsustainable high – where they occur every other day if not every other hour and until it’s long past the point where anyone can keep up with them all. For the current up and coming generation, it’s just a dreary facet of life that they all seem destined to face at one point or another. Telling this kind of story without turning it into disaster porn requires a certain level of tact that Beast Beast is thankfully capable of, even when some facets of the ideas it introduces (like how all three characters perceive themselves and others via social media) don’t always end up feeling fully explored.
The film has a true sense of compassion for its characters and their stories, and thanks to exceptionally great performances from its three leads, offers a heartfelt plea and a resigned statement about growing up in a place that not only fails to curb its epidemic of violence, but actively pushes for it.