The simplicity of The Beta Test’s concept conceals how thoroughly satirical this film is: after receiving an invitation for a no-strings sexual encounter in a hotel, Hollywood agent Jordan Hines is pitched headfirst into a whirlwind of forbidden sex, murder and intrigue. All set against the backdrop of Hollywood’s seedy but spotless visage, not only is The Beta Test a cautionary tale for the post-Weinstein generation, it lampoons the futility of Hollywood’s facile approach to money-grubbing in all of its glory.
Jim Cummings is an exciting prospect of current indie filmmaking, one with the power to create a title on a shoestring budget of $350k and it feel as much a ‘real’ film as another made for twenty times the budget. Other efforts, Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, showed us this; first-time director, PJ McCabe, helps him kick it up a notch to elevate it above previous works.
The viewer is lulled with a paint-by-numbers, functional shooting and editing style. Heavily populated backgrounds, just out of focus, fill the frame and give a taste of the claustrophobia that Hines feels as his facade begins to collapse inwards. We’ve witnessed Cummings in a falling-apart-at-the-seams performance before, but as Hines he shines. An almost John Hamm smirking quality makes it a challenge to take him seriously, but he rises to the challenge, with the bulk of the script meat.
It’s not flawless by any stretch; there is a tendency for too much satire and the film turns to give the viewer a wink more than once. The climax goes full Black Mirror and is messy for it, but there are enough moments of well-timed, laugh-out-loud comedy and biting satire that it almost gets away with it.
Indie filmmakers have always had the deftest hands when it comes to holding Hollywood to account, and this is another in a long line of laser-focussed takedowns of the big-screen dream and the industry that props it up. The Beta Test slots nicely into the canon alongside The Player, The Big Picture, Barton Fink, and Living in Oblivion.
11 March 2022