Review: 'Beautiful Youth' is a lovely exercise in minor-key heartbreak
CANNES -- This is my third year attending Cannes, and I'm starting to get a sense for what kind of films their programmers are drawn to, which is true of every festival. Sundance has a specific character, SXSW has its identity, Toronto feels like nothing else, and Fantastic Fest is the dangerous, drunken, knife-wielding cousin to all of them. Cannes has a soft spot for a certain kind of social drama and a sort of extreme naturalism. "Hermosa Juventud" is exactly the sort of film I expect to see when I attend this festival, and as such, it's a relatively strong example.
Jamie Rosales is the writer/director of the film, and his greatest strength as a filmmaker is how invisible his touch is. The film is fairly delicate. It never goes for the big melodramatic move, even though there's plenty of opportunity. Even the synopsis for the film in the Cannes catalog leans more heavily on a plot hook than the actual film does. Rosales seems far more interested in simply capturing the way life slowly but surely lands on us than in any traditional ideas about story arc.
Carlos (Carlos Rodriguez) and Natalia (Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson) are a young Spanish couple, and when we meet them, they've been dating a little over two years. There's no end game that either of them is thinking of at this point. They're just drifting along, struggling to find jobs and keeping each other happy in the meantime. Natalia lives at home with her mother Dolores (Inma Nieto), her toddler-aged sister and her teenage brother Pedro (Juanma Calderon), with their disappointing father German (Miguel Guardiola) only occasionally wandering through their lives. It's hard for Delores, and she can be incredibly strict. Pedro in particular bristles at almost every request his mother makes.
For Carlos, things are even more difficult at home. His mother Rosa (Patricia Mendy) was injured, and she spends her days in a fog of painkillers and inactivity, Carlos often having to bathe her. She's a large woman, and essentially unable to take care of herself. Carlos works when he can, but he always feels like he's on the short end of any arrangement. When he finds an opportunity to make a larger than normal sum for a day's work, he talks Natalia into it, and together, they appear in a porn film. The way Rosales stages the scene is matter of fact, and for two young and pretty kids, it seems like no big deal. There's no residual hurt or lingering anxiety about it, either. They have a decent afternoon, they make a little bit of money, and they move on.
When Natalia realizes she's pregnant, though, things begin to change for both of them. She realizes it's time to grow up and get serious about finding a way to provide for herself, and Carlos tries to keep pace with her. He knows what he should do, but he can't help but feel screwed by the system, by circumstance, and that lingering sense that life isn't fair leads to self-sabotage for the most part.
The film charts not only the pregnancy, but the first few years of their little girl's life, and for the most part, it is a straightforward look at the ever-shifting dynamic between Carlos and Natalia. I think Rodriguez is a solid performer, and he's able to give us some sense of the way the inner weather of this guy is affected by the world around him. Garcia-Jonsson is the star of the film, though, in every way. A lovely young woman with soft features and a plush figure, she suggests volumes through even small gestures, and watching her slowly realize that no matter how well Carlos means, she's still got to depend on herself more than anyone else, it's a real heartbreak.
One of the things that Rosales seems to have on his mind is just how hopeless things can seem when you're in your early 20s and even the worst jobs, the ones you don't really want, are unavailable to you. At one point, Carlos pins all of his hopes on a settlement he hopes to get from a court case involving a fight in a bus station, and that "maybe I'll win the lottery" mentality is too much for Natalia to accept. She knows that no one is going to hand her anything, and she begins to consider leaving the country to go someplace where she's got a better chance of finding a job. If she does that, though, it raises a number of questions about Carlos, her mother and brother, and her infant daughter.
The film builds to a final scene that I think is meant to be devastating, but Rosales doesn't really make it stick. It's sad, certainly, but because we see how little an earlier similar scene meant to Natalia, it doesn't have the awful sense of finality that it feels like Rosales is trying to accomplish. Even so, I liked a lot of it. He tells chunks of the story using the detritus of social media, as if we're flipping through the phones and the Facebook pages of these people, looking at these frozen moments even as we get a feel for what's going on beneath the surface of those images. I think filmmakers are going to have to start dealing more with this sort of thing because it is very much a part of the fabric of how we share things now. I know that for me, social media is an everyday tool, and a huge part of how I communicate with the people in my life. It has its own rhythms, its own language, and Rosales works hard to show what role it plays in the relationship between these two unlikely young parents.
"Beautiful Youth" is a solid, sincere little picture, and it offers enough simple, subtle charms to be worth seeking out. If nothing else, it is a hell of a showcase for the talented Garcia-Jonsson, who we will be watching work for a long, long time.