After a series of deliberately difficult art films, Spanish director Jaime Rosales’ “Beautiful Youth” feels almost conventional, apart from two long segments in which major events in the lives of its characters are depicted via the screens of their mobile phones. For better or worse, Natalia and Carlos represent Rosales’ idea of a typical early-20s couple, drifting along with ambitionless lethargy, forced to grow up when Natalia realizes she’s pregnant. Alternately, this slice-of-life drama could be the sympathetic backstory of an amateur porn star — a far more marketable way to sell a film that approaches that plot point with nary a whiff of exploitation.
Rosales’ title, “Beautiful Youth,” feels like a flip on Larry Clark’s “Kids,” which stirred controversy by depicting teenagers engaging in shockingly “mature” behavior. In this relatively low-key portrait, 20-year-old Natalia (Ingrid Garcia-Johnsson) and b.f. Carlos (Carlos Rodriguez) are legally adults, but still behave in irresponsible, childlike ways. They also both still live at home with their parents — hardly uncommon in Spain, especially amid the ongoing economic crisis.
Natalia displays no guilt about sleeping in every morning, while her over-stressed single mother, Dolores (Inma Nieto), goes off to work. Rosales observes Natalia’s disengaged routine in a voyeuristic, pseudo-verite style, his camera poking its way into private everyday moments improvised by his unmannered leads — like the pregnancy test Natalia administers in the opening scene. As in so many American pics that use the same technique, the results are mind-numbingly naturalistic, rendered flat by the lack of scripted dialogue or background music.
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Life is boring for a couple too young to appreciate what it means to have health and beauty on their side. Clearly, Natalia’s mother was gorgeous once, while the cranky old invalid (Patricia Mendy) living with Carlos now depends on her son to bathe her. For kicks, Carlos suggests that the couple shoot a porno movie, and though Rosales spares us the act, we should be grateful for the setup: a candid on-camera interview in which the two characters provide details otherwise withheld by a film that rejects traditional exposition.
Though presented without judgment, this development seems unusually risque in the context of a fairly routine kitchen-sink drama, which mostly concerns how a lower-middle-class couple that probably wouldn’t have lasted under normal circumstances deals with the arrival of an unplanned baby girl. They make the porno for fun — and a few hundred Euro — and then forget about it, returning to a routine that involves idle shoplifting, drinking with friends and other time-wasting activities.
The sex-tape thing resurfaces later, but not in the way you would think (which is any way that capitalizes on the presence of such an unconventional situation earlier in the film). Unlike 2012’s “Starlet,” which told an engaging story that just so happened to involve a budding porn star, Rosales’ film subscribes to the philosophy that “real life” doesn’t reduce to neatly packaged narratives, offering instead an episodic series of incidents (including, in one ambiguous scene, a possible murder) set in real apartments and buses and alleys.
Perhaps this relatively unpredictable approach strikes some viewers as more genuine, though it also tends to feel episodic and unrefined: Why these scenes, and why should we care? Apathy is perhaps the least attractive trait in any protagonist, and Natalia doesn’t start to become interesting until the moment she takes responsibility for her child.
Even then, Rosales offloads the most significant developments to a cell-phone screen, which shuffles back and forth between text messages, digital photos and a mindless videogame. These subjective sequences are the closest insight the film offers into the minds of its characters — and practically the farthest thing from a satisfying storytelling experience one can imagine. Better to spend the majority of the film staring at beautiful young people, however listless, than to be banished to the attention-deficit world of their devices.