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Review: Beautiful Beings – “Sublime cinematography”

Back in 2017, I’d sung the praises of Icelandic filmmaker Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s feature debut Heartstone on this very film blog. He returns to the silver screen with another coming-of-age story revolving around themes of male friendship, broken homes, and toxic masculinity but this time around he infuses the narrative with supernatural undertones and a touch of magic realism. Although the result is not always cohesive, there’s no denying his style remains captivating enough to sustain this familiar tale of growing pains.

The film opens with a voice-over by one of the boys at the centre of the story, Addi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason), recollecting a dream where he was going with his friends to beat up a guy who had done something: “I was furious and thought this man deserved it but then I sensed how scared he’d be and wanted to back out. I looked at my friends and knew they would turn against me. They would need to get their anger out some way.”

These very first words of dialogue sum up the dynamics at play in the world of adolescent delinquency that constitutes the day-to-day life of Addi and his friends Konni (Viktor Benóný Benediktsson) and Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frímannsson). Raised by absentee and abusive parents, these kids don’t seem to have much choice but channelling their rage and fear into goliardic misadventures that span from the silly-infantile to the borderline criminal.

However, amidst the excesses and the violence, there’s a level of endearing tenderness generated by their bond which delivers a glimmer of hope, finding beauty within the bleak. That’s exactly what happens with the catalyst moment of the film’s sparse plot when Addi develops an interest in outcast Balli (Áskell Einar Pálmason), the recent victim of bully violence at their school whose story winds up on the news as an exposé on the rising violence amongst Icelandic youth.

Albeit swapping Heartstone’s rural landscape with the urban jungle of Reykjavik’s most run-down suburbs, Guðmundsson retains his flair for poetic visuals courtesy of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s sublime cinematography, which reaches another level of gorgeous when it comes to the dream sequences or premonition-like visions that Addi seems to be gifted with. As the boys welcome Balli into their gang of misfits and its rules, they get involved in dangerous scenarios which progressively escalate towards the nightmarish.

Whilst his first film revolved around the friendship and potentially repressed romance between two boys, this second effort is more of an ensemble piece driven by Addi’s narration that’s tied in with his alleged psychic gift. This means the storytelling lacks focus sometimes with the supernatural element not blending in seamlessly, but it also offers a wider breadth of characters vividly brought to life by a talented young cast of first-timers.

Guðmundsson clearly is a master at directing naturalistic performances and delivering an inspired mix of lyrical imagery and cinema verité which once again echoes the style of Gus Van Sant and Terrence Malick. For his next effort, it’d be interesting to see him tackle new material or at the very least craft a story with a little bit more meat and a little less meandering. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasure to have this talented filmmaker back in the game and I highly recommend you check out both of his films.

Beautiful Beings is available in the UK on digital platforms from January 30th

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