Berlinale 2022 review: Beautiful Beings (Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson)

Beautiful Beings may feel like an excessively familiar or bleak film at times, but this lovely Icelandic drama turns into a sensitively told tale of healing and growth in Guðmundsson’s capable hands.”

Director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s debut film Heartstone (2016) enjoyed an impressive run following its launch in Venice and went on to win dozens of prizes on the festival circuit. Almost six years later, his long-awaited follow-up feature Beautiful Beings (Berdreymi) finally premieres in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival. This high-profile Berlinale berth, coupled with strong reviews and further festival invitations, should start a similarly extensive journey for Beautiful Beings, an affecting coming-of-age melodrama that gently dissects various performances of masculinity.

Beautiful Beings features harrowing scenes of bullying, self-harm, and teen violence in the first few minutes. We are quickly introduced to a group of neglected teenagers who seem to be smoking and punching their way through difficult years of adolescence. Impatient viewers may be forgiven for thinking that we are in for a rough ride, with an extended series of gloomy events packed into the relatively long running time. But Beautiful Beings gradually evolves into an unexpectedly sensual and dreamlike (and often nightmarish) experience with plenty of surprises in store for the audience. While the film undoubtably tackles some heavy issues (like the lack of parental supervision, domestic violence, and teenage sexuality), Guðmundsson’s treatment is admirably sensitive and affirming (if not exactly uplifting). At its core, this is a moving tale of friendship and recovery, despite all the sadness and trauma that run through it.

The story follows Balli, who is assaulted by a group of boys early in the film and suffers from a broken nose and a concussion as a result, and his three friends (Addi, Konni, and Siggi), all of whom deal with their own set of familial problems during a pivotal time in their lives. The boys are at a formative age of self-discovery, but their unforgiving milieu is not at all conducive to a healthy coming-of-age experience. Addi’s parents are divorced, Balli’s stepfather is in jail, Konni is petrified of his father even though he attempts to hide his fear from everyone. This is a recurring theme that unites all the boys in Beautiful Beings; they all feel the pressure to act a certain way and conceal the vulnerable parts of their identity in order to fit in with the rest. In other words, they try to mold themselves according to a rigid and improbable idea of masculinity, hurting both themselves and the people around them in the process. This self-projection is built on aggression and senseless violence, but the strong bond of friendship that the boys share with one another provides them with a temporary shelter and allows them to be fragile for short periods of time. Guðmundsson portrays this co-existence of masculine aggression and soothing tenderness with vivid, richly textured images. The camera frequently gets very close to the characters, catches their most minute glances or gestures, and emphasizes the luminous nature that surrounds them.

Even though the tall and powerful Konni is said to be the leader of the gang, Addi emerges as the central figure in Guðmundsson’s story. He is the first among the boys to realize the consequences of his actions and shows compassion towards Balli at his lowest point. Beautiful Beings depicts coming-of-age as the process of becoming aware of one’s responsibilities and understanding the results of one’s choices. Unlike the other boys (who are impulsive and unpredictable), Addi matures as a human being because he realizes that seemingly trivial or meaningless acts of cruelty can hurt others in irreversible ways. Whenever Konni or Siggi take a foolish joke too far and lose their temper for insignificant reasons, Addi is the one to tell them to cool down. But he is not without his own demons, either. He lives with his overwhelmed mother, a psychic who may or may not be able to sense invisible things, and this gives Guðmundsson an opportunity to interweave brief surreal interludes into the story. Many of these dreams reveal Addi’s most intimate anxieties and insecurities (some of the more memorable images in this vein include haunting visions of bodily transformation or falling from great heights).

After Balli’s stepfather is released from prison, Beautiful Beings takes a few drastic turns and heads towards a rather obvious conclusion. But this is also part of the point that Guðmundsson makes; as the circumstances force the boys to take more extreme measures, we (as adults) can easily see that things are likely to go wrong, but the boys themselves are not old or mature enough to have that foresight. Beautiful Beings may feel like an excessively familiar or bleak film at times, but this lovely Icelandic drama turns into a sensitively told tale of healing and growth in Guðmundsson’s capable hands.