• Interviews

Guðmundsson’s “Beautiful Beings”

In Beautiful Beings, a teenage boy, Addi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason), becomes friends with Balli (Áskell Einar Pálmason) after having seen him on national television. Balli is in the news as a victim of teen violence, which, we learn, is an increasing problem in the capital of Iceland. As Addi’s clairvoyant mother Guðrún (Anita Briem) sympathizes with Balli, Addi is also moved by Balli’s situation and becomes protective of him in what is a rather violent environment for teenagers. It turns out that Balli lives most of his time alone, while his violent stepdad Svenni (Olafur Darri Olafsson) is in prison, and his mother frequently spends her nights away from home. Balli is a neglected child, like so many of the other teenage boys he knows.

Konni (Viktor Benóný Benediktsson) and Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frímannsson), who are Addi’s close friends, have a harder time accepting Balli to their group – or gang as it more properly is – and it turns out that they also have issues at home that make them vulnerable. Their friendship is their support group and is what keeps them going through some very tough situations. The film is a sensitive but not sentimental portrayal of how hard and turbulent it can be to be a teenager in a world where there is a lack of role models and of the support young people need when developing into adulthood.


We spoke to Icelandic filmmaker Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson about his second feature film, Beautiful Beings, which premiered at the film festival in Berlin and went on to screen at the film festival in Istanbul.

Your first film, Heartstone (2016), was about teenage boys growing up in Iceland. Your second film, Beautiful Beings, is also about teenage boys growing up in a rather rough environment in Reykjavik. What inspired you to write Beautiful Beings?

After I had done Heartstone, I was thinking about my next projects and decided not to do another coming of age film. But then I had these quite violent dreams, which were connected to my childhood in the suburbs of Reykjavik, and I decided to start writing a little about this period of my life. I realized that there was a great story to be found here.

The film is thus inspired by my own life, but it is still a fictional story. It is important for me to point this out, so my friends don’t have to answer questions about what is real and what is not.

The film is pretty violent. The teenage boys express themselves through violence. Yet, the film is called Beautiful Beings. Is this a tribute to the young boys, who also show a lot of vulnerability in their behavior?

It was very important to find the balance between the violent and the beautiful part of those boys as human beings and as friends. They are young guys who need affection and who need to find comfort, which they find among their friends even if it is not expressed in obvious ways. Sometimes it is expressed through fighting, which ends up in a hug. For me, it was important to elevate them into beautiful people, which I think they are. I think the characters in the film are beautiful, and I was happy to see that in Berlin the majority of the reviews focused on this part of the film. This tells me that we succeeded in showing this.

The boys are all from neglected homes apart from Addi, whose mother is a spiritual person with a lot of compassion for her son. The film shows how hard it is to grow up if you don’t have the right role models. Is this a big issue in Icelandic society and is that part of the reason you wanted to make this film?

When I was growing up, I saw this around me. It did not always have anything to do with alcoholism or neglect, sometimes it was just about parents not being around. They were just busy with their lives and did not knowing what was going on in their children’s lives. It is not that it is a huge issue in Iceland, but some kids in schools are dealing with this and when I was growing up, it seemed to be a bigger issue. But it is still an issue in our society today.

There is a special bond between the boys. What inspired this bond?

I had friends who were known to be really violent boys and other kids would fear them. I knew their other side and I knew I could trust them, that they were loyal and that they would do anything for me and for their friends in general. I also knew that they could be quite dangerous towards other kids. I knew both of their sides and I also knew why they were like that. I knew they did not want to be like this, and they would break down and almost cry because they regretted what they did. They could not help themselves because of an external thing that they had no control over. That was maybe because of something going on at home.

You have cast Icelandic teenagers Áskell Einar Pálmason as Balli, Birgir Dagur Bjarkason as Addi, and Viktor Benóný Benediktsson as Konni –  they do an excellent job, which is the case for all the young actors in the film. As they might be too young to go to acting school, how did you manage to find these young people in Iceland? And how do you make sure that they are emotionally ready?

I started working with kids in my short films. I have actually mainly worked with kids so far. I have gradually worked out a system how best to support those kids, so they can become great actors but also enjoy the experience and grow with it so they feel stronger afterwards. We invite as many kids as possible to come for casting, and then we select them, and then we screen them for about six months where we train them twice a week. We teach them basic acting and we don’t go into the script beforehand, but we set it up so that they can learn it and stop if they want. It is really important for us that they can stop if they do not want to continue. We give them the weight that they can carry until they can carry the whole role.

You have made a few short films before becoming a feature filmmaker. They also deal with childhood or are coming of age stories. Why is this a big theme for you?

When I was growing up, I was really aware of the fact that adults and grownups had no idea how our world was.  They had no idea that a baseball bat was actually a possibility for us and that it was pretty serious when boy groups were arguing, and it was escalating into fighting. I was very aware of the separate worlds of the grownups, and then I also felt that within our group of friends, no one really knew each other. We all had created an image and we were never ourselves except for in a few moments. I was very aware of how we had created an image of who we were, and I wanted to break out of it, but I could not. I was afraid as a kid and also played a role to fit in. When I started writing, I realized that I had so many characters and so many stories about this period, which was a joy for me to write about and to be able to show other boys, who are in this situation, or men who were in this situation, so that they can reflect on it and not be ashamed of it. Because I was ashamed of it for a long time, and now I am not ashamed of it anymore. Now, I can see the beauty in it as well.

You have also cast two of Iceland’s most accomplished actors, Anita Briem and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson in your film. Ólafur plays a character that is a little unusual for him – an unsympathetic person, an abusive stepfather. Why cast him in this role?

I thought he was perfect: His looks and his presence. He is such a flexible actor, and he can be whoever you want him to be. I really like actors who are so flexible that I can choose whether I want to show vulnerability in a man like him. He is a very versatile actor, and I knew it would be no problem for him to do this. He was so excited to get an opportunity to portray a man like this. He loved it.

Your film was at the Berlinale and recently also at the Istanbul Film Festival. What was it like showing the film to the festival audiences here?

Unfortunately, I was not in Istanbul, but I did receive a lot of messages from audience members who saw the film in Istanbul. It was very nice to receive messages from men my age, who said that the film reminded them of their own childhood. I love that because human emotions are the same everywhere. Now, the film will travel a lot and I look forward to showing it in different places of the world.

I also remember when I showed Heartstone to an audience in a really small town in the Israeli desert and the kids there felt that the film was about them, because they were going through the same things. It looked different, but it was the same thing.

What is next for you?

I will reflect on that during the summer. I have a few ideas for new projects.