Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s dreamy “Beautiful Beings,” which is Iceland’s entry for the Oscars this year, is about what used to be called juvenile delinquents; it observes a group of boys with little or ineffectual parental supervision as they test each other and comfort each other and get into trouble. The pace is languorous, and the Icelandic settings are so lovely that the problems the boys have tend to seem less important or troubling than they should.
Balli (Áskell Einar Pálmason) lives in what is described by the other boys as a “bum’s house,” but the red and blue exterior of his home is gorgeous, and though the inside isn’t too clean, the soft light coming from the windows and the swaying curtains in the breeze make it look inviting. Balli is being bullied at school, and a boy hits him in the face with a burned tree branch, which puts him in the hospital.
Balli is filmed for television in a news piece on violence among the Icelandic young, which catches the attention of a group of three boys: Addi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason), the charismatic and very cool leader; Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frímannsson), who is more of a follower; and the volatile Konni (Viktor Benóný Benediktsson), who is nicknamed “The Animal” because he has a temper and is always lashing out physically if he feels insulted by rival groups of boys.
When these three boys go to visit Balli at his so-called “bum’s house,” they learn that Balli lost an eye because his stepfather, who is in jail, accidentally shot him with a BB gun when he was younger. Guðmundsson’s camera lingers on these young guys as they hang around outside and test each other and slowly allow Balli into the fold, even though he is too frightened of heights to follow them up to the top of a building.
The lives of the boys in “Beautiful Beings” are lacking in love and affection at home, and Guðmundsson shows us Addi embracing Konni and stroking his hair without a trace of self-consciousness; later on, Konni is seen resting his head on Addi’s shoulder. But where the film eventually goes with this particular strand of the narrative feels evasive and confusing, as if Guðmundsson doesn’t want to deal with it fully.
It is hinted that Addi’s mother might have supernatural powers of some sort; when she strokes her son’s hair, her hand glows orange in the dark. There is a rather simplistic morality at play in “Beautiful Beings” that might work better if Guðmundsson had leaned more into the non-realistic and fantastical side of what he is trying to convey here; the scenes where the boys are on magic mushrooms have a persuasive quality that is lacking in the sequences that are meant to be more realistic.
When Balli’s stepfather comes home from prison, “Beautiful Beings” views him as a kind of fairy-tale ogre, and he is made to disappear into particles in a dream that Addi has about him. When the boys confront this man physically, his grunting anger sounds somehow comic or unreal, yet what happens to him is all too real and leads to a climax that gets resolved in much too tidy a manner.
“Beautiful Beings” is engrossing up to a point, but what it fatally lacks is a sense of realism and danger. There have been so many films in this vein that have shown teenagers in brutal situations that the talked-about and indicated trouble that the protagonists get into doesn’t have the impact it needs to.
The best scenes in this movie show that Guðmundsson has a talent for make-believe, drug trips and fantasy scenarios, and if there were more such set pieces in “Beautiful Beings,” then it might have been something more distinctive rather than the latest in a very long line of films about young people left on their own.
“Beautiful Beings” opens in NYC Jan. 13 and L.A. Jan. 20 via Altered Innocence.