**Content Warning: Beautiful Beings contains material involving sexual abuse of minors, inferences of abuse, and other subject material that may trigger SA survivors.**
Writer/director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson (Heartstone) followed up his first feature film with a story that’s at once anchored in reality and adrift in the stars. In this way, it bittersweetly captures the spirit of adolescence, a period when one is no longer a child but not quite an adult, when one feels entirely free from responsibility, invincible to time and consequences, even if these are the furthest things from the truth. Selected as Iceland’s official entry for Best International Feature for the 2022 Academy Awards, Guðmundsson’s Berdreymi, henceforth referred to as Beautiful Beings, is landing in select U.S. theaters January 13th, bringing with it a specific view of Iceland’s disabused youth that’ll no doubt inspire familiarity within its American audience.
Three boys — Addi, Konni, and Siggi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason, Viktor Benóný Benediktsson, and Snorri Rafn Frímannsson, respectively) — provide a support system for each other, their home lives a little less ideal than they’d prefer, their company offering what they lack. The more sensitive of the three, Addi decides to introduce himself to another boy, Balli (Áskell Einar Pálmason), a social pariah who’s just been on television due to the brutal beating he recently received. Primarily on their own, the foursome spent their days getting into as much trouble as they get out of, until something happens that changes the course of all their lives forever.
There are two stories within Beautiful Beings and they don’t necessarily gel as well as Guðmundsson may intend, and part of this is due to the setup of the film as a whole. The film is about 95% a coming-of-age tale involving sexual exploration, intimacy, youthful aggression, and breaking free from the traps set by our care-givers. When it’s focused on this, the film is tense and uncompromising, honest in a depiction of the type of friendship that grows when misfits find one another. My personal favorite is the presentation of intimacy among the foursome. Each knows the others’ secrets, something Addi clues us into as narrator, making the audience a sort of additional secret-keeper. While they do give each other an enormous amount of crap, ribbing each other on their looks, hygiene, and sexual preferences (why is calling someone a homosexual always a go-to?), Guðmundsson also explores the intimacy that comes from friends who know someone through and through. In one scene, early into knowing Balli, Konni, expecting to have a laugh, invites another neighborhood kid to join them, seemingly an easy mark for their hijinks. When the interaction leads to a rather destressing confession, the once instigating Konni turns into a rabid protector and the aftermath of which results in Addi consoling Konni with tender strokes of his hair. These boys, implied to be 14 based on a line of dialogue, seem to have experienced things that make them especially sensitive to darker parts of reality, which also explains a certain penchant for troublemaking and rabblerousing. How could they be expected to go to school to learn, to look to the future as something positive, when their lived experiences have taught them little more than how to survive? Through the script and the unrestrained performances from the cast, the audience comes to understand why these four are the way they are. They are victims, former victims, assailants, thugs, protectors, children who would be men put on a cycle wherein we forget that they are just boys and are reminded again and again.
Where the film struggles to maintain its hold is in the other 5% in which a subplot involving Addi’s family as believers in psychic, supernatural, and alien beings comes into play. Of the four boys, Addi is the most adjusted, his disbelief in his parents’ and sister’s convictions being the more pronounced conflict he faces, the absence of his father being the second and more subtextual conflict. There’s a plot line in which, as if to physically and forcefully manifest a change within Addi, Guðmundsson activates this belief within Addi via strange and hard to see figures in the dark. These may just be ethereal manifestations, hypnagogic-like events that mix with several disturbing dream sequences to affect change within him, ultimately leading to a lonesome ending. The issue is that, in its first presentation, in the very first scene of the film, the audience hears a voice as someone draws, explaining the belief system and a dream of the person and their friends submerged in colorful water. But then it cuts to Balli, crafting the connection between the speaker and Balli, but, rather than making them seem like two people, the edit can be misconstrued as them being the same, especially as Balli barely speaks. According to the press notes, Guðmundsson’s intends for the inclusion of the supernatural to serve as intuition or premonition, essentially, to provide a reason why Addi would suddenly have bad feelings about a situation, to make him more curious when he might not have been otherwise, to consider the path he’s on. Though there’s evidence that Addi’s lifestyle with his friends isn’t really what he wants out of his life, this supernatural plotline shorthands Addi’s internal growth. This may be an issue of not possessing the kind of background as Guðmundsson does where relating to odds-and-ends of the four boys felt more accessible.
No matter my feelings on how the story’s thematic elements gel, the performances from the central cast are riveting, the script offers the kind of rawness that dares to show life as it is in all its beauty and cruelty, and Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s (Heartstone/Another Round) cinematography balances the sense of realism and magic, one never quite stepping on the other. Even when aspects felt like a dash of Chronicle (2012) (minus the actual superpowers) mixed with Kids (1995), there’s no denying the authenticity Guðmundsson manages to create. Beautiful Beings breaks our heart as much as it uplifts us, the weight of adulthood almost too much to bear for these little men and their newfound witnesses.
In select theaters January 13th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Beautiful Beings (Berdreymi) webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.