By Thomas M. Puhr.
Different doesn’t always mean good, and while I admire the many risks Beautiful Beings takes, I walked away from it with a shrug of indifference.”
Everyone at Balli’s school seems to have agreed he’s the designated punching bag. In class, the girl next to him skooches her desk away and complains to an indifferent teacher that he smells funny. In the unmonitored hallways, bullies corner him and refuse to let him go until he screams at the top of his lungs. Things reach their boiling point when the same bullies follow him into a tunnel and smash a broken tree branch over his head, putting him in the hospital. We see him in a news segment about out-of-control teens. “I don’t care if you like me or not,” he mumbles to a reporter, when asked what he has to say to his tormentors. “I just want to be left alone.”
A few days later, Balli returns to school with a plastic mask strapped to his broken face. Knowing full well he’s a target, he cowers in a corner during recess and sneaks off to an old shack to smoke alone. Three other boys – outsiders themselves – follow and catch him cutting himself. They take pity on him and reservedly invite him into their group. Although it’s unclear whether or not they’re just taking advantage of Balli – his rundown, unsupervised house is a great place to hang out and party – a tentative friendship develops.
These opening sequences are among the strongest in Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s Beautiful Beings (Berdreymi, 2022). As Balli, Áskell Einar Pálmason delivers a painfully realistic performance. He embodies that “weird” kid in school – there’s always one – whose obvious misery remains ignored; after all, to extend a friendly hand would put a target on your own back. Birgir Dagur Bjarkason is equally convincing as Addi, the kid who takes that chance and reaches out to Balli.
Balli’s life is a far more horrific mirror image of Addi’s. They both live with an overwhelmed single mother, but whereas Addi’s is a bit eccentric (she’s into tarot cards, claims to visit her son in his dreams, etc.) Balli’s is dangerously unhinged (an addict, she disappears for days; when she is home, she skulks around like a ghost). Both also struggle with absent fathers. Addi’s, a recovering alcoholic, pays an awkward visit every once in a while but seems like an okay guy; Balli’s is a violent psychopath whose imminent release from prison makes his son literally shake with fear. This contrast is the narrative’s beating heart, and the film works best when it’s focused on this life-changing (and, ultimately, live-saving) friendship.
Buried somewhere in Beautiful Beings is a piercing study of alienated youth, of young men who never learned to express their thoughts or emotions and whose default response to anything is violence. The other friends in the group, Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frímannsson) and Konni (Viktor Benóný Benediktsson), have similarly fraught homelives, though they have less material to work with. All four boys, however, are excellent (besides Benediktsson, who has one other screen credit to his name on IMDb, they’re all first-timers). Guðmundsson proves adept at eliciting natural, lived-in performances from his leads.
Unfortunately, the writer-director spreads things a bit too thin. The film quickly buckles under an overload of subplots, side characters, and unwieldy tonal shifts. There’s simply too much going on here: Konni’s ongoing, increasingly violent feud with an older gang, a conflict that builds momentum only to fritter away; Addi’s sporadic narration, which serves no other purpose than to quickly get expository information out of the way; a number of budding romances with some local girls, juxtaposed with homoerotic tension between Konni and Addi; Balli’s unnamed older sister, who appears more than halfway through the film and doesn’t really do anything; two instances of sexual violence (one shown, the other implied) that border on the exploitative; the return of Balli’s father, which sets the stage for a climactic showdown; and, most bafflingly, a subplot involving Addi’s burgeoning psychic powers, which allows for some striking imagery but feels baldly out of place. There’s enough material here for four movies, and four very different movies at that. As a result, the final product is overstuffed despite its generous runtime.
Beautiful Beings is Iceland’s submission for this year’s Academy Awards, and the choice makes a certain amount of sense. Guðmundsson’s handheld camerawork, breathless pacing, and melodramatic flourishes are a refreshing alternative to the detached sterility many have (unfairly) come to associate with Icelandic cinema (the country’s previous submissions include 2021’s Lamb and 2019’s A White, White Day, the latter of which Guðmundsson produced). But different doesn’t always mean good, and while I admire the many risks Beautiful Beings takes, I walked away from it with a shrug of indifference. The boys’ remarkable performances deserve a film with a clearer vision of what it wants to be.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.