Daniel is a young teen who lives on a small, rapidly eroding island is Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, which once hosted a vibrant fishing industry but now is slowly fading away in isolation and decline.
He is also part of the island’s only African-American family, and his father has vanished. With him and his mother due to move soon, he has little time to get to the bottom of his disappearance.
He searches for answers among the laconic, hard-scrabble fishing community, and his investigation puts him in contact with a fisherman who is also haunted by the father’s disappearance. The two come together to explore the unsettling rumors, putting them in confrontation with a darker presence they may not yet fully understand.
Impeccably crafted with darkly luminous cinematography and a haunting sense of both dread and sadness, Ben Strang’s “Beast” works on multiple levels, exploring a young man’s investigation into the mystery of his family, identity and community as well as capturing a little-seen community fighting its own physical and socioeconomic erosion.
Two narrative modes service these two creative aims, intertwining to resonant effect in the storytelling. A brooding, uneasiness to the waters and town establishes right away that something strange is out there, and a poetic eye for naturalism finds beauty in the setting and place. Rendered with respect and even tenderness, the island setting is a character in the story, full of secrets and sadness. Yet the visual lyricism never comes at the expense of the pacing, which builds both Daniel’s character and the disquieting tension that suffuses the film throughout.
Daniel is played by young performer Elijah Mayo, who brings a watchful intelligence and a sense of aching responsibility to his portrayal that is entirely natural, grounded and understated. There isn’t a lot of dialogue in the short, but the silences and unspoken sentiments suit a story that is about absence, sorrow and a grief that has nowhere to put itself. This lack of personal resolution drives Daniel to pursue the mystery of his dad’s grief — and sends him into the dark waters that took away his father in the first place.
“Beast” essentially functions as the opening chapter of a larger world story, but it’s an effective one in building a world, a larger question and a compelling atmosphere of setting and story. The disappearance of Daniel’s father is beautifully fused with the fading fortunes of the small island on which he worked and lived, amplifying both his absence and the way it haunts his family and community.
As for the titular beast in question, spoiler alert: we don’t quite discover what it is at the end of the story. But it starts to tease a compelling metaphor about the dark, inchoate forces of a world that whole towns and communities can fall prey to — one lurking out in the distance, picking off families and people one by one until there is little left.