The tandem coming-of-age film Blast Beat could not be more upfront in how much of its script is liberally drawn from its writer-director’s personal experience. It was co-written with Esteban Arango’s high-school friend Erick Castrillon and expanded from their 2015 short of the same name. One can imagine that a fair portion of Arango’s biographical experiences went into the stories of protagonist brothers Carly and Mateo (played by real-life brothers Mateo and Moises Arias).
Much like them, Arango emigrated from Colombia to the States during adolescence and was forced to effectively come of age in a foreign and less-than-hospitable land. This blatant sincerity in his storytelling, which is drawn from such a personal place, is what allows the formulaic Blast Beat to stand out in a market saturated with stories of troubled teens and their rocky paths to emotional maturity.
Set in 1999, the brothers are presented as being on two distinct paths in life, including enjoying their last days in Colombia before they are to join up with their estranged father (Wilmer Valderrama) in America, who has been saving funds to send for the rest of the family. Arango films these departing moments in their home country with a frenetic handheld style, frequently scored to pulse-pounding death metal music that is no doubt evocative of the brothers’ turbulent and precarious youth. The pair must find out who they are when their new life requires them to mature.
This opening salvo of nonstop, infectious energy will unfortunately remain the film’s most effective impression, starting off at a sprinting level as metalhead/science prodigy Carly and layabout/artist Matteo try to live up their last moments in Colombia to the fullest, only to stagnate once the film quickly whisks them off to the States, where the rest of the film takes place. Although Ed Wu’s wistless handheld cinematography remains a constant as Blast Beat settles into a very standard narrative, it never feels as appropriate or as fresh as it does in the opening moments of the film.
What prevents the film from feeling overly standardized like most coming-of-age films is how genuine Arango is in his storytelling. Carly harbors a pipedream to work at NASA and spends his days fretting over college admissions and balancing his turbulent relationship with his brother with overcoming the obstacles built into higher learning, specifically for under-privileged immigrants like himself. Matteo, conversely, has no goals and resents his older brother for his ambition and broods over having left their old life behind for no detectable benefit in his juvenile eyes.
Blast Beat establishes itself on familiar generic grounds but overcomes this limitation through its detectable sense of earnestness in telling the story. Through the Arias brothers’ gripping and nuanced dual performances, the shrewd balancing act on display between overplayed sentimentality, the honest depictions of both adolescence and immigration, and the film’s absorbing sense of time and place of an America on the verge of the Millennium, the film can work around the overplayed story beats built into the coming-of-age genre.
Even if the arcs of Matteo and Carly feel typical of most examples of the genre, Arango’s direction and script can make these well worn moments feel grounded and fresh. Pulling from what is likely a place in their shared past, Arango and Castrillon’s Blast Beat can feel blunt and genuine even as it appears to be mawkish and clichéd. You can forgive the film for its reliance on the coming-of-age story structure because, in execution, it produces a moving, honest depiction of strained adolescence within a foreign, changing world.