The gift of Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s ‘Beautiful Beings,’ a review

Reel Pictures

In Icelandic writer and director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s Beautiful Beings, a single house contains many lifetimes’ worth of horrors, the kind that seem unsurvivable. It’s a house full of broken doors, adults that are never around, mess, and a dearth of healthy food. It’s a house wherein so much violence has taken and will take place. But in the first few moments of the film, there takes place a moment so tender as to make you weep.

Protagonist Addi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason) sits on a shoddy armchair, holding a cigarette that seems so long in his ruddy hand, and as he taps its ashes onto the carpet, the action scans as stiff, like something he might have practiced when he was alone. Addi wants his friends Konni (Viktor Benóný Benediktsson) and Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frímannsson) to read this act as comfortable, wants for it to persuade the other two to stay. The house belongs to Balli’s (Áskell Einar Pálmason) mom, who’s away on a bender with her friends, and step-father, who’s in jail. 

As Konni and Siggi settle down around Addi, Balli looks into the plastic bag Addi handed him earlier. It’s full of food. Addi learned that Balli had run out of food in his mother’s absence, and so he brought Balli some things from his own home. Gratitude glints in Balli’s eyes as he eats a banana, but Addi doesn’t leave a beat in conversation for Balli to whisper a thank you. Rather, with a sweet smirk in his eyes, Addi asks nonchalantly whether Balli will come hang out with them. “Come on, I’m inviting you,” Addi says to Balli. Addi is making friends with Balli, who’s been violently bullied at school, who, alone in his own home, could use kindness and warmth, a friend. All the four boys are merely 14 years old, and Beautiful Beings is about their friendship. 

Beautiful Beings is a film that is raw and surreal at once. But more than anything, it’s harrowing in the way a natural disaster is beautiful. It’s stark and stunning, but more than anything it’s restorative, enough to restore your faith in not only the palliative power of friendship, but also the hope friendship carries, which allows one the ability to survive life. Gracefully performed, sympathetically told, and unpretentiously trenchant, Beautiful Beings is a tour de force. 

The scene earlier described takes place within the first few moments of the film, which follows Addi as he moves through horrifying but apparently typical circumstances. In a sense, this film is about the failure of parents, and in another sense yet it’s about the triumph of goodness in youth. The film begins with Addi bringing Balli into his friend group, and through Balli we see how Addi comes to fall in love with his friends, to care for them. Addi says that he’s the most normal of his friend group, and in a sense he’s right. Konni, a tall kid and known among his peers for his anger and readiness to throw himself into a brawl, is terrified of his violently abusive dad and stays out for as long as he can so as to avoid going home and seeing him. Siggi hates his verbally abusive dad and plays a gross and continual joke on him to get back at him. 

And then there’s Addi, whose parents are divorced — his dad drinks a lot and rarely sees Addi, who clearly adores him, while his mom is loving and tirelessly cares for her kids. Addi grew up in his parents’ spiritual commune and his mom not only is psychic but insists that Addi shares her abilities. The film follows as the four kids make their way in their world against the odds that adult negligence and systemic unfairness have placed before them. It’s a story not so much about coming of age as it is about preserving love through the horrors of youth; it’s not so much a striving for the knowledge and stability of age as it is about maintaining a desire to live, a fresh hopefulness despite growth. Through hazy and smoky effects, the film incorporates and depicts the surrealness of Addi’s clairvoyance, which manifests in dreams, in looming and shapeshifting monsters lurking in the shadows in Balli’s home, and feelings of dread in Addi’s chest. Addi’s abilities function as signposts throughout the narrative.

Balli’s story is used not only in an instructive sense, so as to depict how the boys learned of and dealt with the horrors within their own homes — finding and making moments of serenity and joy on their own — but also functions to puncture their bliss, propelling them toward ways of avoidance or coping that will greatly impact the adults they will become. Guðmundsson’s writing is often delicate as gossamer and searing as a flame as it captures the group of friends within a milieu of indifference, which forces in them a bravery no one ought to try on so early on in their lives. It’s a stunningly wrought story.      

The film seems to say that these kids are far too young to come of age yet, far too young to enter the world of their troubled parents. And so it attempts to rescue them with such a sympathetic and kind and tender handling, by giving them friendship and love. The film itself seems to function as a warm home that many of the boys yearn for, offering through attention and space the kind of care and cradling that sustains. 

There’s something so touching at the heart of this movie. It’s not just within the story, it’s not just in how Guðmundsson has written its turns and explosions, how he has woven compassion into every prickly aspect, which shows in him an immense respect and sympathy for his his young protagonists, who are carefully depicted making mistakes, given the space to learn, and to teach each other, because no adult seems to want to. It’s also in the gaze, which here is without judgment or pretensions or expectations, and considers Addi and his friends with knowing closeness and intimacy. It’s impossible not to see the film’s love and fear for Addi, Balli, Konni, and Siggi, and it’s impossible not to fall in love with them, as viewers.  

There’s also a flooring display of beautiful tenderness, of a love, abundantly evident in the skill of the young actors. It’s present in how gently each actor portrays his character, how each interacts with others, how each fumbles and experiments with adult gestures that ring hollow and contrived, like a suit or a shoe that’s much too big. With intense awareness of self, they mimic each other, trying on phrases and personalities and throwing punches they haven’t got the heft to land. The film is carried by these young actors with such bravery and fallible, trembling grace and understanding of their characters’ psyches and awareness of the others about them, that it seems as if they truly have been friends all their lives. 

I fell irrevocably in love with this film at the moment when, early on, Konni leans into Addi and places his head into his lap. Addi cradles Konni’s head with one hand, running his fingers through Konni’s strawberry-blond curls, and holds a cigarette in the other. It’s such an easy movement for the two, as though they do it all the time. They probably do. Later, Addi falls into Konni’s arms after a game of trust off the edge of a derelict building’s rooftop; they hug, and it’s evident that they hug often. These two scenes assured me that, regardless of where they end up in life, these boys will always have this friendship, remember within their bones this capacity of love, and that it will be warm enough to allow them the strength and nourishment for hope. 

Through Beautiful Beings, Guðmundsson has generously and passionately gifted us a picture of love that we come to not only care about viscerally, but that we might want to emulate in our own lives. This is a champion achievement of a film. 

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