The Icelandic Academy Award entry Beautiful Beings by writer and director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson is a snapshot of a group of four teenage boys on the verge of disaster or metamorphosis. The violent yet tender film with carefully placed moments of magical realism is impressive and captivating. It’s a film that stays with you and makes you think about how vulnerable we are when we try our best to pretend otherwise.
Children are capable of such innate cruelty and touching kindness. Yet they can sometimes turn a dime and become bullies when just before that they were protectors. What makes a boy a target for some and something to take care of for others? Balli(Askell Einar Palmason), a neglected, scruffy adolescent with a tumultuous home life and a vicious assault as his first entry into the film, is painfully vulnerable. His mother is rarely home and his stepfather is even worse. Fortunately, he is rarely there, but when he is, he inflicts the worst abuses on the family.
When Addi(Birgir Dagur Bjarkason) seeing a news story about this poor kid recovering in the hospital and being forced to wear a mask to protect his healing facial bones evokes something in him that ignites when he sees him at school. He unexpectedly invites him into his group, and as things grow to a violent end, Addi begins to have visions of what could be. But will he heed those warnings and save himself and his friends before it’s too late?
When Addi shows up at Balli’s house with his friends, they come on a path that could be their salvation or their end. Addi is joined by Konni(Viktor Benoný Benediktsson), a cheeky kid with a horrible home life that has him looking for a fight around every corner. He spends his days avoiding his father, of whom he is terrified, and with battle bruises. Addi claims that Konni is the leader of their group, but his penchant for trouble and short temper make him more of the muscle for Addi’s oversight. The fourth member of the group, Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frímannsson), is a nervous little boy hyena who slithers through life to avoid being starved and beaten. His nerves make him hesitant to accept Balli until he realizes that he is no longer the lowest rung on the ladder.
Guðmundsson’s screenplay aptly demonstrates the nonchalant ruthlessness of these boys’ language. They wield insults and barbs as weapons designed to elevate themselves within the group while masking their exposure. Sometimes it’s hard to hear, but too natural for comfort. As a result, Beautiful Beings sounds and looks like the flowing, languid lives of children everywhere.
Addi is literally and figuratively a golden boy compared to these troubled souls. He is handsome, flaxen blond and has a smooth baby face and he has the best family life. His father is usually absent, but his mother is loving and present. She cares about her son, even though she doesn’t realize how much trouble he has. It is from her that Addi’s intuition and visions come.
There are times when you can feel that different parenting and better decision making can change the outcomes of these kids. Tragedy and trauma need not be inevitable for everyone. Addi is caught up in Konni and Balli’s chaos, but although he ignores his mother’s concern about what happened to Balli the night before on the news, he finds himself attracted to the boy the next day. The group even goes so far as to bring him food, help him clean up his house, and even make sweethearts an attempt at self-care. Kindness in these guys who compete for position and push boundaries allows them to take care of each other as quickly as they take blows. They keep their friends’ secrets, keep them from as much pain as possible, and worry about their well-being, even though they don’t always know the right way to help.
Beyond the boys themselves are questions. Can these children be saved? Are they doomed to be their parents? Between each painful, sympathetic stab, there are blows of violence so extreme that there is little room for compassion. Konni in particular is a thunderbolt for tragedy. You are terrified of him, even as much as you wish you could protect him from his father’s fists. He swings through life, even when there is no reason to fight.
Above all, Beautiful Beings is about how toxic generational male violence can be. This film shows that the cycle can be almost inescapable. Like a boat anchor that holds you or holds you in place, our friends and their luggage can keep us safe or drag us to cold, dark places that even the bright blue Icelandic sunlight can’t reach.
The star cast is filmed voyeuristically. Every shot of soft bangs, peach fuzz, and acne lingers as if the camera lens wants to preserve these guys’ lives, even when the job is to shoot them from a distance. Camera work by DP Sturla Brandth Grovlen(The Innocents) is a master at capturing the harshness of childhood. His lens dances between the grins and smiles of the boys, never letting us forget that both exist. Everything shot through a fog of cigarette smoke and dappled sunlight that terrifies you.
Wracked with worry, you’re still shocked when Konni makes a bizarre and largely unprovoked attack on a group of guys at a party. A dreamy, hazy atmosphere that resembles the early moments of a nightmare rather than a daydream allows the subtle moments of magical realism to shine. The subdued hallucinations convey a wealth of truth in their simplicity.
It’s not often that a movie about guys who scare me so much makes me feel so maternal. The most heartbreaking thing is that no matter how horrific their language and behavior are, a glimmer of innocence remains. A little glimmer of hope that there is a huge sweetness in these guys that needs to be protected and nurtured. A seed to hold on to, even when desperation strikes. Maybe they don’t have to ruin each other. It shapes every interaction and scene, filling Beautiful Beings with such gripping emotion that you lie as battered and bruised as the guys at the end of the film.
Ultimately, Beautiful Beings is just like the guys themselves. It’s vicious and tender, breathtaking and unforgiving, and utterly unforgettable.
As editor-in-chief of Signal Horizon, I enjoy watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up on old fashioned slashers, but my real passion is television and all weird and ambiguous stuff. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the editor-in-chief.