I just want it to be the early 2000s.
The age of human commodification and social disconnect, slowly dissociating from our surroundings as we form into pliable lines of code, formless clouds of data to be exploited and abused for the profit of others. As the detachment clashes with our carefully constructed facades it all begins to break down, psyches flooded with manic paranoia and the profound realization that maybe none of what we’ve been working for has been real, hyperfixated on projected images while shirking all introspection or self-reflection. Falling down a rabbit hole of perceived success and imitating the monsters at the top in an attempt to continue climbing the ladder of falsity.
Jim Cummings’ predilection for precise cinematic anxiety once again realized, here in the form of an endlessly urgent psychosis, an emergent paranoia that clashes the worlds of Hollywood hypocrisy, caustic masculinity, and the disintegration of society at the hands of technology. Following the electric and blood-soaked opening scene of The Beta Test, it doesn’t take long to realize that Cummings’ Jordan Hines is a decidedly awful person, hiding a mysterious invitation for anonymous sex from his wife, constantly fantasizing about other women, and using his position of mild power at his workplace to abuse assistants and bark at clients. Terrible, yet remarkably compelling thanks to Cummings’ manic performance, shouting frantically about his ulcer, sweating nervously during business deals, and being slowly drawn into the grand mystery behind the glistening purple envelope he received in his mailbox.
The great success of the film is its delicate balancing of its myriad of concepts and emotions, managing to successfully weave the threads between its collection of ideas without missing a beat, the disquieting sexual tension feeding into its thematic musings on modern relationships and our slavish devotion to the blinding light of social media, in turn spinning a chaotic web about our loss of individuality to algorithms and endless streams of collated data. It all feeds into each other because they’re all symptoms of the same debilitating human condition, our insatiable desire to appear likable and powerful creating a vicious downward spiral of systems that reward narcissism and self-aggrandization, corporations feeding on our basic instincts to maximize profit while our desperate attempts to construct façade constantly impede our ability to just be content for a moment.
In a world focused on the pristine image of living the dream, doing everything in your power to simply play the part is all that matters, regardless of if you’ve actually achieved anything of note and ignoring the destructive behavior that allows you to project that image. The Beta Test makes crystal clear Cummings’ and collaborator PJ McCabe’s frustrations with the toxic system that has continued to reward this behavior even in a world that constantly boasts its progress. At times it all feels a little too neat and clear-cut but it works to the film’s benefit more than to its detriment, Cummings’ blinding intensity serving the seething anger in the script and the film’s satirical inflections allowing it to revel in these moments while still giving them the necessary weight. Whether it’s spitting in the faces of sleazy Hollywood executives or spelling out the absurdity and overwhelmingly terrifying ease of access to personal data, it’s framed in a way that speaks to the importance of these things. We are being bought and sold, our lives and emotions played with like puppets on strings by carefully designed programs that reduce the millions of thoughts and decisions we aimlessly plug into our devices down to a defining string of information that can be used to completely uproot your life.
Though faltering at times in its dedication to ensuring you don’t miss the string of themes it wants to impart on the viewer, The Beta Test is a remarkably charming, consistently funny, and raucously anxious piece of indie cinema that wields its own underground conception as a weapon against the real life antagonists in Hollywood. Sprinkled with the purple-drenched mystery of an elusive anonymous sexual awakening, the throes of marital infidelity in a world designed to make you feel like you never have it good enough, and just the right amount of high-octane Jim Cummings monologues, the result is a constant joy to watch. Most importantly, it’s inflected with a hope that we might just be able to escape our data-driven overlords and enjoy the simplicities of life once again.