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“Violence among young people in Iceland is a rising issue,” declares a TV reporter before introducing Balli (Áskell Einar Pálmason), a scrawny adolescent who suffered a vicious attack from his peers that brought him to the hospital. “I just want to be left alone,” Balli tells the reporter, while blond teen Addi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason) and his mother watch from home. Unfortunately for both boys, that attack only scratches the surface of what lies ahead for them in Beautiful Beings, a coming-of-age tale that lands like a blow to the head.
Despite writing him off as a “total nerd,” Addi ends up following Balli at school the next day and roping him into his band of troublemakers, which also includes the clownish Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frimannsson) and Konni (Viktor Benóný Benediktsson), the group’s leader. Nicknamed “the animal,” Konni is a volatile instigator whose fierce sense of loyalty and pride gets him in constant trouble.
Balli happily slots in at the bottom of the boys’ food chain. They snicker when they visit his house: a nice enough place in theory; a total pigsty in reality. Despite the dried dog vomit and dirty clothes, the house becomes their headquarters. With little adult supervision—Balli’s father is dead, his mother is an absent junkie, and his stepfather is in jail—the boys are free to smoke cigarettes, watch hentai, and plan antics as they please.
Those antics are usually brutal, increasingly so. Led by Konni, the gang gets tangled up in a never-ending revenge cycle with a group of rival teens, springing up on one another with fists swinging. They inflict violence on strangers, and receive large doses of it in return. Even between each other, they opt for roughhousing: A game that involves choking each other to feel high leaves Addi passed out on the ground.
But between the violence—and behind much of it, misguidedly—there are slivers of tenderness. When Addi discovers that Balli doesn’t have any food at home, he brings him some without saying a word. When the boys make plans to break into a pool with some girls, Konni drags Balli into the bath and gives him a good scrub. Their bodies are tools for harm, but also for affection: Arms are thrown around shoulders, fingers combed through hair. They exchange glances filled with love, and often, homoerotic yearning.
Writer-director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson demonstrated his interest in adolescent angst with his 2016 debut, Heartstone, and he navigates the subject like a pro in Beautiful Beings, helped enormously by his alluring and talented young cast. Guðmundsson’s hometown of Reykjavik looks nothing like it does on the tourism websites, but it still looks golden under Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography, which also sprinkles in a charming dash of magical realism.
The destination in Beautiful Beings is less satisfying than the act of getting there. In the film’s final scenes, Balli’s abusive stepfather suddenly comes back into the picture. His villainous return feels cliched against the rest of the story’s realism, and its predictable climax doesn’t quite feel earned.
Luckily, Beautiful Beings doesn’t suffer too much from its ending. That’s because it’s not a story about endings, but one about journeys: the one between childhood and adulthood; the one between isolation and friendship; the one between being a bad person and trying, against all odds, to be a good one.
As of April 25, Beautiful Beings is now streaming on multiple platforms including Amazon Prime and YouTube.