A veteran director of music videos for Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, Chris Robinson made his feature debut in 2006 with “ATL,” a coming-of-age story set in Atlanta, one of America’s great metropolitan music scenes. Although it takes place in Chicago, Robinson’s new Netflix movie, “Beats,” otherwise represents a return to familiar territory for the filmmaker, and too-familiar territory for the audience.
Khalil Everage stars as August Monroe, a happy high schooler who becomes a recluse after the shooting death of his sister. The music he creates on his bedroom computer catches the ear of Romelo Reese (Anthony Anderson of the TV series “black-ish”), a former record producer turned school security guard. Romelo hears a better future for them both in the teenager’s beats. But August’s post-traumatic stress and Romelo’s ethically dubious desperation to get back in the game stand in the way.
There’s little said here about violence or the arts that you can’t find in an after-school special, and the music isn’t half as ingenious or impactful as the plot demands. Robinson has an eye for smeary, hazy afternoon sunlight that gives “Beats” a memorable visual signature. But his attempts to represent August’s condition with camera trickery fall flat.
Since neither the story nor the songs adequately sell August’s predicament, it falls on the cast to attempt both. Anderson’s low-key, lived-in charm is the highlight. Whether he’s gently busting his teenage ward’s chops or simply enumerating Chicago’s musical and culinary highlights, his breezy naturalism helps every line land.
Elsewhere, Everage conveys August’s grief over his sister with breath-catching force, particularly at the film’s climax. Uzo Aduba, as August’s overprotective mother, offers a convincing sketch of a woman working hard to overcome long odds. She is persuasive enough to avoid the clichés. It’s hard not to appreciate film’s earnest, if unsuccessful, attempt to do the same.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes.
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