Beasts (2014) – By Paul Busetti

‘BEASTS’ explores the idealized notions and uncertainties of post-college life. From the perspectives of three post-grad students, ‘BEASTS’ chronicles the daily struggles of paying rent, sex, and failure.

For anyone unfamiliar with the mumblecore movement, it is a lo-fi approach to filmmaking which stresses improvisational performances, close collaboration between the director and actors, and candid, often unglamorous depictions of sexuality. Plot comes a distant second to naturalistic dialogue and emotional honesty. The important filmmakers in the movement were dubbed the enfant terrible grandchildren of Cinéma Vérité and the French New Wave. Instead of trying to disguise the fact that their films are shot on (sometimes consumer) video equipment, these films embrace it. They use the format to their advantage.  Where film softens, video gives a harsh redness to faces. Skies appear blown out. “Beasts” incorporates frenetic handheld photography, jagged cutting, and elliptical editing to tell its story. Many scenes take place in the morning after a long night of drinking. Too many cigarettes, too much wine. Too much blow. While “Beasts” owes much to the mumblecore movement, particularly Joe Swanberg’s “Kissing on the Mouth” (2005), to pigeonhole it would be doing it a disservice. The chief criticism with the sub-genre, which has dogged it since its inception is that it is too concerned with the navel gazing habits of twenty-somethings while proudly disregarding mise en scéne or any photographic polish. This is where Beasts breaks away. While it shares the rough digital aesthetic, the film’s breathless camerawork catches some beautiful images. Also, its characters are dealt real defeats and disappointments. Their trials are less quirky and more authentic. It also benefits from a sneakily great sound design and minimalist score which is the engine which makes the film flow.

“Beasts” follows two relationships between struggling artists. Gabe (Patrick Lindhorst) & Abbey’s (Audrey Nilssen) is falling apart due to resentment and jealousy while friends Joel (Danny Backer) & Erin (Erin Gutknecht) dance around one after sleeping together for the first time. In between is Joel’s delusional vlogger roommate Spencer (Sean Godsey), who is absorbed with his chance at possible fame. They stumble through thrift shops (“Is this a man’s or a woman’s?”), underneath elevated train tracks, and across empty beaches. The male characters seem fixated on proving their toughness although through actions that are increasingly childish.  They unsuccessfully attempt to climb trees in a children’s park and one character impulsively pierces his own ear with a safety pin found in the street. The film contains many outstanding scenes which feel loose and lyrical as the characters lash out in frustration, boredom and anger. But where the film really shines is in the bedroom. Director Nic Collins excels at the awkward dialogue that occurs pre, post, and even mid coitus.

Fans of Richard Linklater’s seminal early feature “Slacker” (1991) are sure to notice similarities as well. Both films document college grads who crisscross through the narrative as they monologue about music, poetry, and pop culture. Whereas that film concludes with a party which brings all the characters together, the party scene in “Beasts” comes in the middle. For “Beasts” finale we are subjected to Caramel Boy, Joel’s performance art piece/musical. Anyone familiar with the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s musical episode “The Nightman” will feel at home.  This is where Collins elicits the most go for broke performances from his actors. A great scene that keeps topping itself.

One odd note about the film is that many times faces of extras in the background and brand logos are blurred out. I’m unsure if this is due to a failure to secure proper legal clearances or a nod to actual vérité documentary.

In the decade since it began, the mumblecore movement has gone weirdly mainstream. “It girl” Greta Gerwig has become the muse and partner of Noah Baumbauch in his recent films “Greenberg” and “Frances Ha”, “The Puffy Chair” director Mark Duplass has gone on to FX’s The League and an upcoming show on HBO, and the aforementioned Joe Swanberg is making Christmas comedies with Anna Kendrick as well as contributing to the horror anthology V/H/S. With his ability make filmmaking look so effortless, Director Nic Collins can do whatever he wants next.

“Beasts” is available to watch online here: https://www.reelhouse.org/beasts/beasts334

I recommend the film to anyone who wants to see an independent film that is brave, beautifully constructed, and full of humor and energy