REVIEW: The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (Sundance 2021)
Child actors have long been a source of fascination, with a recent HBO documentary directed by Alex Winter (called Showbiz Kids) being the latest example of our need to understand “where did it all go wrong?” in many cases. Only a rarefied few successfully make the transition from child to adult actor, while many of those who found early fame understandably suffering from mental health and addiction issues. If your entire identity is wrapped up in one specific iconic role – Harry Potter, Matilda etc – it can be even harder to escape that pigeonhole. If the one iconic role you’re known for is in an decidedly adult movie eg. Lolita, Danny in The Shining the chances of being well – permanently scarred – seem even greater.
When Italian auteur Luchino Visconti set about adapting Thomas Mann’s novel Death in Venice, he knew that casting the protagonist Gustav’s teen object of fascination and obsession – Tadzio – would be key to the success of the film. He therefore launched an enormous search for the perfect boy – who would be thoroughly examined and judged against extremely highly standards of physical beauty. This procession of ‘victims’ before Visconti is what opens the documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World and you may think that things can’t get more disturbing from here, but believe me, you will not be able to predict the twists and turns that this absolutely riveting documentary is about to lead you on.
The boy he found was the fourteen year old Björn Andrésen from Sweden, whose experience making and promoting the film could reasonably be described as grooming. One bizarre side effect of his fame was having a pop career in Japan – and he comes across as very much a Timothée Chalamet or Harry Styles of his day. The glamorous footage of Andrésen attending Cannes and the Royal premiere of the film (where was the scene of Queenie and Margaret discussing Death in Venice in The Crown?!) is interspersed with scenes of adult Andrésen (now in his 60s) and his much-changed circumstances. The filmmakers follow his present-day life, while he is under threat of eviction from his flat, for hoarding and leaving his gas stove unattended and also his girlfriend troubles.
The documentary is very much about Andrésen wrestling and reckoning with his past, from his mistreatment by adults when he was a child and teenager, through to his own failings as a husband and father. Just when you think there can’t possibly be any more to his life story, something else will be revealed. As is often the case, there is a lot of home-movie footage from before Andrésen became an actor to illustrate his narrative and I’m always astonished at how much documentation there is, even of ‘normal’ people’s lives and from before the digital age. It feels very much like watching an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? with there even being an emotional scene at a records office.
The structure and pacing by writer-directors Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri, as well as the editing by Dino Jonsäter and Hanna Lejonqvist aids the compulsive viewing experience, so even if you’re watching at home, it’s unlikely you will get distracted or have your attention start to wander. The score by Filip Leyman and Anna Von Hausswolff makes that opening sequence, in particular, seem like a horror film. Because of the heavy involvement of Andrésen himself, who is really guiding us through his life story, it doesn’t feel sensationalist or exploitative. There is even a treat for Ari Aster fans, with some behind-the-scenes footage of Midsommar, a more recent film that Andrésen has appeared in.
This was the first film I saw (of 25) at this year’s Sundance and it set an incredibly high standard that everything else struggled to live up to. It makes you realise that everyone you meet or pass in the street could have an incredible backstory, just waiting to be discovered. Especially with how close Andrésen comes to homelessness, the film makes you appreciate the extreme highs and lows that anyone can go through in their lives. The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is utterly fascinating from start to end. It’s an incredibly well-crafted documentary, that perfectly times each new piece of information, keeping you glued to your screen.