Boys will be boys. They fight and claw, and show off their vulgarity to fit in with the crowds. Teenage boys often find themselves pushing the limits of what is acceptable in society. However, in Beautiful Beings, these actions have a far more dangerous edge. Pitting a teenage fantasy about growing up against the stark reality of poverty and abuse, Beautiful Beings almost feels like a dystopia. Director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson has a strong visual style, but the disillusion one feels from the story sinks Beautiful Beings from greatness.
Two young boys become surprising friends in modern-day Iceland. Balli (Áskell Einar Pálmason) finds himself the subject of torment. No friends come to his rescue when he’s beaten one night, and his mother is unwilling to care for him. One day, Addi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason) reaches out to Balli. Addi runs a small gang with Konni (Viktor Benóný Benediktsson) and Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frímannsson). When the gang begins to take pity on Balli, they soon deal with life’s toughest lessons.
Beautiful Beings hits on the many tropes of coming-of-age stories (bildungsroman) familiar to American audiences. One can argue its equal parts A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Stand By Me, and The Outsiders. However, the violence that finds its way into the film often comes across as exploitative. Violence among youth gangs is nothing new. Yet the depictions of violence, particularly the high frequency of sexual assault, become troubling. It’s unclear why Guðmundsson forces these actions on our characters, specifically in one instance where the assault goes in a very different direction than one might have anticipated.
There’s no doubt that young adults suffer, but Guðmundsson puts his characters through hell. Their faces are smashed and beaten, others suffer sexual assault, and violence becomes a cyclical part of their life. Stories about standing up to the bullies in our lives can be rewarding, but few feel as bleak as Beautiful Beings. In fact, the non-stop darkness of the film zaps it of any enjoyability.
Guðmundsson infuses an air of mysticism in the story through Addi’s mother (Anita Briem). She appears as a clairvoyant maternal figure, often urging her son to avoid trouble. However, these interactions do not occur in the real world but as part of dreams and visions Addi experiences. These magical realism aspects starkly contrast to the hyper-violent world the boys inhabit. At times, this can be effective, but more often than not, it makes the parental desire to protect their child feel like negligence.
To its credit, Beautiful Beings features three excellent performances from its young cast. Pálmason, Bjarkason, and Benediktsson serve as an effective emotional triumvirate. Each finds themselves facing different aspects of the fight to fit in. Yet they deliver nuanced and pathos-driven performances. These kids never make you doubt the importance of these moments, and their anger is palpable.
Simultaneously, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen continues to establish himself as a talent. After The Innocents in early 2022, he returns to frame the bleakness of the world with style. He’s particularly good at framing unique images but also forces us to live in the pain of Beautiful Beings‘ performances. He breaks out the handheld camera to give us more images of the vulnerability, but it serves a dual purpose with the teen performances. The frantic and energetic camera literalizes the experience of being a teenager, all while conveying the confusion of that era of our lives. Grøvlen continues to build an impressive filmography, with Beautiful Beings, Shirly, and Another Round in the last four years.
While Beautiful Beings is not the most enjoyable time, there’s plenty to like in the drama. However, lingering in these dark moments becomes oppressive to the audience. If you can handle a dark film, Beautiful Beings features some of the darkest sequences of 2022. Even if you are not in the mood, sequences will stick with you for weeks.