Monday, April 22, 2024

Movie Review (EIFF): ‘The Beta Test’ is a Smart Dark Comedy with Some Issues


Director: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe
Writers: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe
Stars: Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe

Synopsis: A soon-to-be-married Hollywood agent receives a mysterious letter for an anonymous sexual encounter and becomes ensnared in a sinister world of lying, infidelity, and digital data.

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After the success of Jim Cummings’ previous two films Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, he is back again with a dark comedy around the film industry. In a Q&A after the screening of the film, Cummings made it clear that his love for filmmaking is what keeps him going and that he is not chasing to be locked into studio deals to have his vision on the big screen. He still edits his own films, works with people he has known for the past decade, and even uses tricks such as return policies in order to get professional speaker sets and mix the audio at his own place. There is a clear passion for filmmaking here and it comes through from the opening scene.

The structure of the film is incredibly clever, with the opening scene taking place between a couple and a clear mystery that needs to be solved. It is dark and graphic to set the tone of the film and yet leaves the audience in suspense about how much worse the situation can get. It then jumps into the main premise of the film, focusing on Jordan Hines (played by Cummings), a Hollywood talent agent like those you would see in Entourage – something that is referenced in the film.

What makes this film work as much as it does is the narrative of the story. The sexual encounter that happens between Jordan and his match is incredibly well written, from the letters at the beginning to Jordan’s paranoia after the event. Cummings plays the role well, escalating each scene and creating a sense of anxiety that is hard to look away from but nervously anticipating his next moves. The story naturally moves from point to point within this main storyline, with each scene adding more layers to this mystery that made for a fun journey.

The humor within this story is very sharp and, for the most part, lands well. Part of this is down to Cummings’ performance, but a lot of that also comes through in the screenplay and the editing style. There are numerous scenes, particularly when Jordan is trying to convince people that he is a police officer, that just works so well and brings some needed humor into a film that is this dark.

Whilst the main narrative of the film works so well, there are some other themes and side plots that are not handled as well. Jordan is one of those Hollywood talent agents that thinks he can get away with being horrible to those around him, even going so far as to include a joke about Harvey Weinstein. Whilst I get the purpose of this and what he is trying to show, there should have been a further exploration of this theme. Instead, the film even fails to pass the Bechdel test as the women are left to the side in order to further propel Cummings in the film. With the film being quite short as well, it could have taken a little longer to delve into these themes and explore them properly.

It is also hard to tell what lessons are learnt by Jordan when it comes to the ending of this film. Whilst I do admire what Cummings and co-writer PJ McCabe did to subvert expectations, but it does create a closure that is not rushed but certainly unclear. For some, this ending might work for the character of Jordan and his journey, but I just wished the film had given us something a little more satisfactory.

Overall, there is so much to enjoy about The Beta Test that it will certainly be a crowd-pleaser. This was a fun film to watch as part of a festival, and I would recommend seeing it with a group of people if physically possible. There are some things that stop it from being a fantastic film, but the good certainly does outweigh the bad in a film that promises to make you laugh before anxiously anticipating what will happen next.

Grade: B

Amy Smith
Amy Smith
Amy joined the InSession Film team in September 2020. Growing up in the north of Scotland, she has been balancing her passion with writing with studying English and Film at University alongside a part-time job. Alongside InSession Film, Amy writes for other publications, including her self-published website Film For Thought. She is also the Arts Editor with a focus on film and cinema for her University’s newspaper and assists in writing for other sections. You can follow her on Twitter @filmswithamy.

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