Sundance 2020 Review: Art Brings Out the Beauty in “Beast Beast”

There’s a faint, familiar sound of a computer hard drive stirring as Adam (Will Madden) is uploading a video he made to the Internet in “Beast Beast,” the kind of quiet overexertion that makes you think the system is about to crash, though for Adam, he’s only just getting started. Intent to get his YouTube channel off the ground with firearm tutorials and reviews, it’s a lonely pursuit for Adam, upsetting his father who wished he’d look for a real job rather than spending all hours of the day filming and editing these videos in his room, and for as much attention as he gives to “Prime Shooter” to make it less amateurish than the one-man operation he knows it to be, the halting sounds emanating from his PC suggest it’s doing far more processing in every respect of what he’s putting out into the world than he is.

The same can’t be said about writer/director Danny Madden, who has put considerable thought and care into “Beast Beast,” which unfolds as an exuberant yet critical snapshot of the social media era and a compelling, heartfelt plea stressing that the world is a better place when we bypass the boundaries that screens provide to engage with one another. It’s no accident that the dazzling drama begins with a sensory overload, scanning the Instagram accounts and YouTube channels of Adam, his neighbor Krista (Shirley Chen), a high schooler who lives for drama club, and Nito (Jose Angeles), a new kid on the block who posts vids of his skateboarding tricks online. The three can be seen there living their best life, but it soon becomes apparent that these images are self-selected, tailored for what they think the world wants to see and not reflections of their true selves.

Although the gap between reality and what’s online has been probed countless times before, Madden locates an unexpected angle in looking at how these technological tools of self-expression have actually inhibited us, encouraging people to hold onto their pain that they don’t think they’ll get likes for and being less able to understand what they’re feeling when so many of the examples they see have been scrubbed of nuance. For those who don’t yet have either the vocabulary or the experience to articulate their emotions precisely, but armed with powerful bullhorns with the devices they hold, they can be bold, but the acts of expression can be empty and isolating, giving the sense that they are connecting when in fact they’re receding into an echo chamber and it’s fascinating to see “Beast Beast” employ every channel of communication available cinematically, from impressionistic cinematography to evocative sound design, to highlight both the private worlds of Adam, Krista and Nito and the larger social sphere they inhabit, allowing the disparity between them to be felt when they don’t overlap.

Each of the central trio in “Beast Beast” have a great deal of hurt to work through, though it comes from very different places. Adam, at 24, has wrapped up all of his hopes – for a social life and economic opportunity – in attracting online fame that seems unlikely to come, Nito falls in with the wrong crowd after moving to a new apartment building where his father’s priorities don’t seem to involve him, and while it wouldn’t seem like the effervescent Krista is bothered by much of anything, an unfortunate incident at a house party changes that, leaving her to heal herself. She and Nito eventually find each other at school to ease the burden, but Adam remains adrift and in spite of the characters living less than a mile from one another, Madden expertly shows the distance they put between themselves out of self-protection and, along with editors David Brundige, Pete Ohs and Mari Walker, find a crackling drama that constantly teeters on the edge of explosion as their three paths converge.

When it finally does in staggering fashion, “Beast Beast” moves from the inevitable to the unpredictable by showing the power bringing what’s inside out, for better or worse, and even when it’s characters might fear losing touch with their humanity in grappling with how to respond to what ails them, the film never does, offering as much catharsis through art to an audience as ultimately it does for those onscreen.

“Beast Beast” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26th at 7 pm at the Redstone Cinema 2 in Park City, January 27th at 9 pm at the Salt Lake City Library Theatre in Salt Lake City, January 30th at 3 pm at the Park Avenue Theatre in Park City, and February 1st at 9 am at the Holiday Village Cinema 2 in Park City.

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