Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson’s sophomore Icelandic feature finds tenderness in a cruel adolescent world
Dir/scr: Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson. Iceland/Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands/Czech Republic. 2022. 123 mins
Fourteen-year-old boys are pack animals. And for better or worse, Addi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason) and his friends, growing up in the ragged fringes of rural Iceland, are no different. Friendship is as much about a tussle for status, a search for weaknesses in each other, as it is about loyalty and solidarity. Then two things alter the balance of Addi’s social circle. Firstly, he adopts bullied outsider Balli (Askell Einar Palmason) into his small gang; secondly, he starts to experience ominous visions, a gift inherited from his clairvoyant mother. The impressive second feature from Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson confronts the feral cruelty and violence of children on the cusp of adulthood, but finds also a tenderness amid the sharp edges and posturing.
Gudmundsson’s depiction of bullying and sexual abuse is confrontational, and makes for profoundly uncomfortable viewing at times.
Gudmundsson’s second film shares with his debut, the multi-award-winning Heartstone, an emotional landscape – the adolescent badlands, mined with unspoken tensions and casual brutality – and a physical one, in the jagged coastal region where Iceland’s deadbeats and outcasts make their homes. More focused in its storytelling than Heartstone, but rather bleaker in its subject matter, Beautiful Beings should enjoy a similarly healthy festival run, with possible interest from arthouse distributors or curated streaming platforms.
On the strength of the quality of performances in both Heartstone and now this picture, Gudmundsson clearly has strong instincts for casting and a knack for coaxing nuanced performances from young actors. Stand outs in this cast are Bjarkason, through whose eyes, and at times dreams, we view the story, and in particular Palmason, as Balli. The son of a drug-addicted, largely absent mother, Balli’s neglect is stamped on him, a mark of shame which identifies him as a target for the other kids. “He stinks!” complains a girl, making a big show of moving away from him in class. But Balli’s treatment by the school bullies goes beyond ridicule, tipping over into violence so extreme, it makes the local television news.
It’s this which brings him to the attention of Addi, whose overtures of friendship are edged with the jostling and mockery which is a substitute for intimacy in his small circle. But gradually, Balli finds his place in the group, which is headed by brawling loose cannon Konni (Viktor Benony Benediktsson), a boisterous thug who stays out late every night to avoid the father he fears above all else. There’s a transformation in Balli as he realises that, for the first time in his life, he has friends. It’s an almost imperceptible change in his physical bearing, its subtlety makes it all the more persuasive.
Gudmundsson’s depiction of bullying and sexual abuse is confrontational, and makes for profoundly uncomfortable viewing at times. Addi’s gift for foresight – explored with impressionistic, dreamlike imagery which is a contrast to the nervy restlessness of the camera elsewhere – provides a crucial counterbalance. The film’s mysticism is a kind of safety net, both for these vulnerable kids, victims of their own inclination to violence and that of other people, and for the audience of this bruising but affecting coming of age drama.
Production company: Join Motion Pictures
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Producer: Anton Mani Svansson
Cinematography: Sturla Brandth Grovlen
Editing: Andri Steinn Gudjonsson, Anders Skov
Production design: Hulda Helgadottir
Music: Kristian Eidnes Andersen
Main cast: Birgir Dagur Bjarkason, Askell Einar Palmason, Viktor Benony Benediktsson, Snorri Rafn Frímannsson, Aníta Briem, Isgerdur Gunnarsdottir, Olafur Darri Olafsson