'Beautiful Youth' ('Hermosa Juventud'): Cannes Review

'Beautiful Youth,' Jaime Rosales (Un Certain Regard)
Courtesy of Festival De Cannes

Rosales’ drama is the sole representative from Spain in this year’s official Cannes lineup. The feature couldn’t be more topical as it takes a look at Spain’s lost generation of young people struggling with the economic crisis and record unemployment. The Barcelona-born filmmaker has been to Cannes numerous times before, including in Un Certain Regard with The Hours of the Day (2003) and in Directors’ Fortnight with Solitary Fragments (2007) and Dream and Silence (2012). (Sales: NDM)

A stark and rather diffuse Spanish drama starring two attractive leads whose lives are far from appealing.

Spanish filmmaker Jaime Rosales (“Bullet in the Head,” "The Dream and the Silence") returns to Cannes for the fourth time with this somber portrait of wayward suburban youth.

CANNES -- The title of Spanish writer-director Jaime Rosales’ fifth feature, Beautiful Youth, can be taken both literally and cynically. On the one hand, the young couple -- played by Ingrid Garcia-Johnsson and Carlos Rodriguez -- at the heart of its loose-limbed narrative are certainly easy on the eyes, their gorgeous faces and bodies illuminating the drab Madrid suburbs where most of the action is set. On the other hand, the film’s depiction of unemployed, directionless 20-somethings is anything but pretty, revealing a lost generation where few viable solutions exist beyond exploitation or expatriation. It’s a premise we’ve seen before in the work of Larry Clark or Gus Van Sant, and one that can sometimes feel as aimless as its two forlorn heroes, although the filmmaker offers up a few stylistic devices to help broaden his scope.

Making his fourth appearance in Cannes, and his second in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, Rosales has forged a name for himself on the festival circuit as a sort of Spanish Michael Haneke, with a series of semi-formalist features -- beginning with 2003’s The Hours of the Day -- filled with a bleak sense of modern-day malaise. (Rosales is currently the subject of a career retrospective at Paris’ Centre Pompidou.) Yet while Beautiful Youth may be a tad more accessible than the director’s previous work, its characters remain for the most part obtuse, while its story seems familiar -- even if that’s kind of the point. Niche art house distributors, primarily in Western Europe, will thus be the best spots for these attractive youngsters to show themselves.

Kicking off with angelic blond, Natalia (Garcia-Johnsson), taking a pregnancy test, the script (by Rosales and Enric Rufas) immediately launches into the predicament that will effect her and handsome b.f., Carlos (Rodriguez), throughout the rest of the movie. Bored, tired and with no apparent job prospects, Natalia spends her time lingering around the house of her mom (Inma Nieto), while Carlos occasionally does construction jobs (for 10 euros a day), with nothing else major on the horizon.

The fact that Natalia’s having a baby throws an additional burden on the already troubled couple, but the real issue lies elsewhere: there are simply no reasonable options available for these two working-class kids, nor do they seem particularly motivated to do much beyond hang out and scrape by. It’s a problem that seems to be endemic not only to the Spanish youth portrayed in the film, but to a budding generation of Westerners stricken by growing unemployment and a widening social divide.

Yet while Rosales’ worldview certainly rings true -- we've all encountered struggling, lost souls like Natalia and Carlos -- it doesn’t always make for engrossing drama, and the director’s choice to purposely depict a pair of appealing but rather dull heroes can be frustrating. Likewise, the lack of a veritable plot prevents the feature from truly taking off, even if a few odd developments, including an amateur porn shoot and a stabbing with no real motive, are meant to punctuate the action.

Where the film sustains interest is in some of the cinematic tools Rosales employs to deepen the narrative, most notably the use of smart phones to convey key passages in the story. Filling entire sequences with text messages, Instagram photos, Skype conversations, video games and emails, Rosales reveals to what extent Natalia and Carlos are dependent on technology to enhance their monotonous and low-income lives -- even though said technology actually does nothing to improve them. It’s a rather bold move on the filmmaker’s part, and perhaps the next step would be to make an entire movie out of iPhone apps in action (if such a film doesn’t exist already).

Shot in 16mm widescreen by Goya Award-winning cinematographer Pau Esteve Birba (Cannibal), the film maintains a somewhat distant approach to its subjects, framing them from afar as they blend into a backdrop of colorless apartments, parking lots, malls and highways. Performances by the two leads are strong enough, though they’re strapped with playing people who seem to be as limited by their surroundings as they are by their own lack of ambition.

Production companies: Fresdeval Films, Wanda Vision, Les Productions Balthazar

Cast: Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson, Carlos Rodriguez, Inma Nieto, Patricia Mendy, Fernando Barona

Director: Jaime Rosales

Screenwriters: Jaime Rosales, Enric Rufas

Producers: Jaime Rosales, Jose Maria Morales, Jerome Dopffer

Executive producer: Barbara Diez

Director of photography: Pau Esteve Birba

Production designer: Victoria Paz Alvarez

Costume designer: Beatriz Robledo Puertas

Editor: Lucia Casal

Sales agent: NDM

No rating, 100 minutes