I’ve always loved immigrant stories on screen. I remember watching An American Tale when I was a kid, and it dawned on me that not everyone in the U.S. was born here. It wasn’t till I was older than I began to comprehend that when a person leaves their home country, it’s often a huge, life-defining change.
The new film Blast Beat from first time feature director Esteban Arango tells a unique immigration story that’s tied up in family drama, aerospace science, and heavy metal. Set in 1999, the movie stars real-life brothers Mateo Arias and Moises Arias as Carly and Mateo. They’re the brothers at the center of the story who struggle to get along with their parents— and each other— as their family navigates the challenging process of moving from Bogotá, Columbia to Atlanta, Georgia.
Older brother Carly loves listening to metal and dreams of attending the Georgia Aerospace Institute and working for NASA. This seems like a reasonable goal since he’s a science prodigy who spends most of his free time building satellites in his room. His younger brother Mateo is a trouble-maker, frequently getting in fights and destroying public property, causing serious issues for himself and his family. Their mother and father, played by Diane Guerrero (Orange is the New Black) and Wilmer Valderrama (That 70s Show), struggle to hold things together as they’re all going through such an enormous change. The family tries to adjust to life in Atlanta while Carly develops a relationship with a professor from the Aerospace Institute, played by Daniel Dae Kim.
I love the uniqueness of this movie. The director really leans into the elements that make this film stand out, like the heavy metal and the late 90s setting. The out-of-date technology and the even more out-of-date racial stereotyping make the setting feel incredibly real. Even though they’re Colombian, a few times in the film their new classmates in Georgia call Carly and Mateo “Mexicans,” seemingly lumping in every Latin American country under one umbrella term. As someone who was in middle school myself in the late 90s and early 2000s, this felt all-too-familiar.
The family dynamics in this film also feel fully realized and are one of Blast Beat’s biggest strengths. Not only do the brothers feel like real brothers (because they are), but the kids’ relationships with their mother and father, and the marital relationship between parents Nelly and Ernesto, are complex and challenging. Diane Guerrero and Wilmer Valderrama make the most of their fairly limited roles and help to elevate the quality of the film whenever they’re around.
Despite the memorable family dynamics and setting, Blast Beat suffers from trying to do a bit too much. There are so many things going on that the script fails to serve them all, and many narrative threads end up feeling underwritten. Carly’s love of aerospace science, for instance, is a major part of the film’s final act, but it’s hard to engage because the film spends no time explaining what Carly is trying to build. He has a big idea that gets the attention of a former astronaut, but the science is so dense and incomprehensible that there’s no real connection point for the audience and the drama falls flat, especially in the film’s weak final moments. Similarly, there’s a compelling plot line about Carly’s girlfriend Mafe (Kali Uchis) whom he has to leave behind when the family moves. There is so much time spent with Mafe in the first act that it seems she will continue to be important to the story, but she is all but forgotten in the rest of the film.
The biggest issue though is the character of Mateo, the younger brother who is at times cartoonishly rebellious and short-tempered. At other moments, he’s more reserved and even supportive of his family, but he changes back and forth so drastically that Mateo feels more like a plot device than a believable character. A few more passes at the script to iron some of these issues could have improved the film considerably.
Story issues aside, Blast Beat has plenty of strengths and a memorable setting. The central performances are all reasonably strong, the visuals are compelling, and overall the movie has an awful lot of charm. Yes, the script could have used some work, but it definitely isn’t a boring film, and I have a lot of respect for the filmmakers and the story they wanted to tell. I sincerely hope director Esteban Arango is given more feature-length opportunities because the distinctive voice of this film deserves a wider audience than Blast Beat is likely to find.
Blast Beat will be available to watch on demand May 21