'Blast Beat': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Full of sound and fury signifying nothing fresh.

Colombian American director Esteban Arango's debut follows an immigrant family seeking political asylum as their metalhead eldest son angles to parlay his academic prowess into a NASA job.

The Colombian high school senior at the center of director Esteban Arango's first feature, Blast Beat, is defined to equal degrees by his prodigious gift for engineering science, his dream of working at NASA and his love of death metal. That last passion prompts the title, and cues the tireless bursts of aggressively thrashing musical breaks and montages that punctuate the action. Otherwise, it adds little to this pedestrian drama about a Latino family seeking political asylum in the U.S. while navigating the cultural shift. There's plenty of potential here to bring original insights to the immigrant experience, but not enough skill in the plotting or execution to tap into it.

A Sundance Dramatic Competition entry that seems rashly promoted to that window, the film was developed out of an earlier short and is scripted by Arango with Erick Castrillon in a way that's both by-the-numbers and frustratingly messy as it weaves together coming-of-age elements with the unease of displacement. It's capably acted for the most part, including by real-life brothers Moises and Mateo Arias, who provide the volatile sibling rivalry that fuels much of the drama. But despite its attempts to capture the precarious challenges of seizing the American Dream, the movie wraps up on a note of corny wish fulfillment that feels far too pat.

Set as the old century is making way for the new in late 1999 and early 2000, the story opens in Bogotá, Colombia, where science whiz Carly, his loose-cannon younger brother Mateo (Mateo and Moises Arias, respectively) and their mother Nelly (Diane Guerrero) prepare to leave their birthplace and join their father Ernesto (Wilmer Valderrama) in what seems to be suburban Atlanta.

Carly's eagerness to be one step closer to his goal of enrolling in the aerospace program at the Georgia Institute of Technology and from there landing a research and development job at NASA makes him appear indifferent to leaving behind his more emotionally attached girlfriend Mafe (Kali Uchis). Skater dude Mateo, by contrast, is a talented artist who resents the family's refusal to respect his wish to remain in Colombia, as always favoring his older brother. Recklessly acting out by blowing up a neighbor kid's backyard playhouse after almost being apprehended by cops for graffiti vandalism, Mateo inadvertently lands his best buddy (Cristian Madrigal) in trouble, with the latter forced to enroll in the anti-guerilla Lancero military training program as a result.

The family's political asylum application seems to be based on them being extortion targets in Colombia, though this is never adequately explained. However, when Nelly and her sons get to the States they are underwhelmed by the sight of Ernesto's cheap pickup truck and the rundown house he has found for them, indicating a precipitous class drop. That becomes even more apparent when Mateo clashes on his first day at the new school with a sports car-driving blond jock (Sam Ashby), a walking visual cliché of rich, white, immigrant-taunting entitlement.

There are half-baked high school romances for both brothers that go nowhere in plot terms. Instead, the narrative focus closes in on growing friction between the siblings and on Carly's fruitful encounter with aeronautics professor Dr. Onitsuka (Daniel Dae Kim), sufficiently impressed with the lad's theories and prototype satellite experiments to help him get a foot in the door at NASA. That's until Carly breaks his trust. At the same time, the family's immigration application is derailed by a crooked lawyer, forcing Carly to use all his resourcefulness in order to avoid surrendering his dream en route to an improbably tidy conclusion.

None of this is particularly compelling. Arango relies on the raw, visceral charge of constant death-metal overlays — bands like Soulburner and Synapticide are featured on the soundtrack, along with David Murillo R.'s original score — to pump up the youth-driven energy, but fails to invite much emotional engagement. All that abrasive music just makes the ears, rather than the heart, bleed. Groan-inducing dialogue doesn't help, either, such as Dr. Onitsuka declaring that working in aerospace technology has made the concept of borders seem foolish to him.

For all its contrived urgency, Blast Beat is a curiously uninvolving drama that attempts to mine contemporary reality but comes up only with something trite and formulaic.

Production company: Macro
Cast: Moises Arias, Mateo Arias, Daniel Dae Kim, Kali Uchis, Diane Guerrero, Wilmer Valderrama, Ava Capri, Ashley Jackson, Renell Gibbs, Cristian Madrigal, Sam Ashby, Andrene Ward-Hammond
Director: Esteban Arango
Screenwriters: Erick Castrillon, Esteban Arango
Producers: Charles D. King, Poppy Hanks, Erick Castrillon, Ty Walker
Executive producers: Greta Fuentes, Yira Vilaro, Moises Arias, Daniel Dae Kim
Director of photography: Ed Wu
Production designer: Olga Miasnikova
Costume designer: Camilla Saldarriaga
Music: David Murillo R.
Editor: Alex Blatt
Casting: Meagan Lewis
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Sales: CAA, Sony International

105 minutes