Who knows why a sight as pitiful as 14-year-old Balli (Áskell Einar Pálmason), the unwashed, neglected child of an abusive stepfather and a largely absent mother, inspires a protective instinct in some kids, and a vicious one in others? Who knows why, at times, a protector can himself become a bully? Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s beautiful and cruel second feature boasts an outstanding juvenile ensemble cast. But almost more than it stars any of them, it stars the ebbs and swells of an inescapable legacy of heteronormative male violence, that fills childhoods with dark, shameful corners that no pale, bright splashes of Icelandic sun can ever warm. In the end, boys will beat boys.
Balli is fleeing another day of peer humiliation and adult inattention at school when three of his schoolmates catch up with him and administer a thrashing so bad it makes the local news and forces him to wear a disfiguring plastic mask while his facial fractures heal. Another classmate, Addi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason), watches the news report at home with his New Age-y mother Gudrun (Aníta Briem) and shrugs off her concern for the boy. But the next day, when Addi happens on Balli getting drunk alone beside an abandoned shed, he makes the teenage-boy equivalent of an overture of friendship, and bums a cigarette. A tiny gesture, but enough to make Balli sheath his exposed wrist and put away the razor blade.
Even more unexpectedly, Addi shows up the next day at Balli’s squalid, rundown house with his friends Konni (Viktor Benóný Benediktsson), a big thuggish lad locally nicknamed “The Animal,” and Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frímannsson), a thin, nervy guy who is reluctant to accept Balli into the gang. Until, that is, Addi points out that with Balli around, Konni won’t pick on Siggi so much. Even within a group as tight as this, there are hierarchies, mostly based on might being right.
Addi describes Konni as the leader of the gang, but Guðmundsson’s screenplay, so accurate at catching the assaultive language that is wielded like a defensive weapon even between close friends, puts Addi at its center: golden and good-looking, with something of a young Ryan O’Neal about him. Addi’s is the voiceover we hear, and Addi’s are the dreams, and soon, the waking hallucinations that give “Beautiful Beings” its subtle, underplayed edge of magic realism. Addi is the most well-adjusted of the boys, likely because of the quartet’s daddy issues, his are the least traumatizing: His father is simply absent since he and Gudrun separated. But Addi too has his issues. Not least, these troubling visions which appear to give credence to his dippy mother’s belief in supernatural energies — beliefs Addi himself had always scoffed at — and which suggest that as bad as they all know things to be for Balli, they might actually be about to get worse.
If in terms of narrative there’s not much new here, there is a freshness and an inhabited vibrancy that makes this painful coming of age story feel exactly its own. And DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (“Victoria,” “Rams,” “The Innocents”) deserves a great deal of the credit for that, shooting the boys’ lives with an immediacy and a fluidity that is captivating, even when their behaviors are brutal. It’s a story told poetically, impressionistically, through sun-flare and cigarette smoke and the somehow heartbreaking details of Balli’s bad haircut and Konni’s acne and Addi’s eyelashes, only for a drive-by motorbike assault, perpetrated by Konni and Addi, to occur with the rattling suddenness of an action movie.
There is such tumult in the boys’ bonding sessions, so many currents of judgment and boundary-testing that go on underneath the homophobic slurs and casual prejudices of their every interaction. But there is also an incredible tenderness that breaks through the veneer of toughness; a shaft of light that keeps spilling over the image like a breaking dawn. They keep each other’s secrets. They have each other’s backs, however misguidedly. They tell each other’s stories translating trauma into gross teenage hilarity, as with one anecdote of a son’s inventively perverse punishment on his terrorizing father, which is to freeze dog sperm into the ice cubes that will tinkle in his evening scotch. After his debut with 2016’s “Heartstone,” a fraught and lovely rural coming-of-ager, Guðmundsson has moved to the city for “Beautiful Beings,” but has lost none of his aching acuity in observing the ways that our friends at this stage in life can lift us up and hold us back, as adulthood blossoms less like a flower than a bruise.