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DIRECTED BY: Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson
FEATURING: Birgir Dagur Bjarkason, Áskell Einar Pálmason, Viktor Benóný Benediktsson, Anita Briem, Snorri Rafn Frímannsson
PLOT: A pack of violent misfits take a bullied boy into their gang on the rough streets of Reykjavik.
COMMENTS: When you grow old and think back on your childhood bullies, you realize that they were bullied themselves, most likely by their own parents or siblings. The hate and scorn was nothing personal; they were only transferring their own pain onto someone conveniently weaker than them. Of course, that idea never crosses your mind when you’re a victim of bullying, and wouldn’t comfort you if it did. Because the foursome in Beautiful Beings are, for the most part, both bullies and victims, we can sympathize with them and forgive them as they indulge in childish cruelties.
Iceland consistently ranks in the top ten in the World Happiness Report, but even paradise has an underclass. Violence is ever-present in the lives of these working-class children from broken families. The film begins by following the misadventures of pimply 14-year old Balli, much-abused by his peers and living with neglectful single mom in a what his friend calls “a bum house.” But the story soon changes focus to Addi, who has a modestly better life. He’s a member of a three-member gang under the erratic but benevolent leadership of Konni, nicknamed “the Animal” due to his fighting prowess and uncontrolled ferocity. Although he’s also from a single parent home, Addi’s mother is caring and stable, if a little embarrassing in her devotion to mystical rituals, yoga, and dream-interpretation. After Balli is beaten so badly he makes a local hand-wringing news broadcast about teen violence, Addi’s empathy is slowly and slyly roused. He convinces the others to let Balli into their clique—helped by the fact that they can use Balli’s half-abandoned home as a club house when the boy’s mother is away for days on end. The others gradually come to accept Balli, but their individual troubles start to pile up, all brought to a boil by the reappearances of absent (and unwanted) family members.
As the film progresses it flirts with the supernatural. Addi discovers that his mother’s precognitive gifts may not be all in her head—and that he’s inherited them as well. At about the midpoint of the film (with a push from magic mushrooms) his powers manifest themselves: he sees demonic shadows, finds his fingers drilling holes in his torso, and dreams of racing down a skyscraper with Konni. The visions are scarce, but set up the idea that Addi can see into the future, creating third act suspense whenever he gets a “bad feeling.” His precognitive abilities symbolize his superior intuition, setting him apart as the character who is in this world but not of it… the one who’s able to see what’s wrong with this picture and thus, perhaps, able to glimpse a different path. That’s not much to grasp onto as far as the film’s weird credentials go, but it’s just enough to get it into 366’s sights. (The movie also flirts with teenage homoeroticism—e.g. some casual sensuous hair caressing—without really exploring those feelings, making it LGBTQ-adjacent as well as weird-adjacent).
Other critics have pointed out—and I can’t really argue—that Beautiful Beings breaks no new ground in the “coming of age” genre, and that its visionary aspect is mostly just window dressing. Nevertheless, I think the movie’s ample strengths outweigh a certain lack of originality. Technically, it’s nearly flawless. (It was Iceland’s submission to this year’s Oscars, although it was not shortlisted.) All the performances, especially from the young central quartet but including the extended families and the surrounding teenagers, are excellent. The cinematography plays with yellow sunlight and sepia shadows; perversely, the camera focuses on dirty fingernails, the dusty corners of Balli’s hovel, or an industrially bleak warehouse rooftop overlooking the harbor, only occasionally emerging onto a majestic beach to remind us of the beauty of the wider world these boys rarely have the chance to appreciate. The bottom line is I found myself engaged with these characters and empathizing with them through their travails, which is all you ask of a film of this sort.
Beautiful Beings is currently in theaters; we’ll update you when it’s more widely available.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Here, with a combination of drifty realism and jolts of the fantastic — Addi has strange dreams and visions, which add unfruitful mystery to the narrative — he persuasively conveys the feverish intimacy of adolescent friendship, with its vulnerabilities and inchoate desires.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)