By Rebecca Naughten

Ostensibly a social realist drama, Beautiful Youth follows Natalia (an impressive performance by Ingrid García Jonsson) and Carlos (Carlos Rodríguez), two working class twenty-somethings each living with their respective mothers and caught up in Spain’s economic crisis with little hope of employment or future security. Natalia’s pregnancy becomes the central focus of the narrative as the demands of familial responsibility impact on the pair differently and push the couple to breaking point.

Although Beautiful Youth is as formally rigorous as Jaime Rosales’s earlier films (characters are precisely framed within onscreen spaces and the camera moves with purpose even when it seems casual – i.e. camera movement conveys mood or reveals something about a character), the stylistic experimentations that are intrinsic to those other works (for example, the use of split screen in Solitary Fragments (2007) or the absence of dialogue in Tiro en la cabeza (2008)) are instead manifested in isolated sequences. The director takes an innovative approach to portraying Spain’s youth as a ‘digital generation’. The majority of the film is shot on 16mm but around 20% was filmed on digital video using the handheld devices that are always in the hands of younger characters. Rosales repeatedly shows them using their phones – texting, playing games, listening to music – even while they are physically in the company of others.

In a sequence at the halfway point – a moment of psychological upset for Carlos, who has been told of his impending fatherhood and also been physically attacked by a stranger – the narrative switches to being filtered through the screen of Carlos’s phone. As he simultaneously recovers from the assault and avoids his responsibilities, Carlos plays computer games while reading text messages from Natalia and his friend Raúl (Fernando Barona). He also flicks through his photo archive in order to send Raúl a photo of Natalia at her most pregnant, watches a party unfold through a Whatsapp group conversation, and repeatedly ignores Natalia’s texts while playing games until she send him an ultrasound scan image.

This style change is initially jarring but the format is made so immersive that the viewer adjusts – after all, we frequently see the world this way too. The way these digital or social media interfaces are incorporated into Beautiful Youth, (Spain, 2014)  is more than a gimmick and Rosales uses them to both shape narrative structure (Carlos condenses the entire pregnancy into a few minutes of screen time by rapidly scrolling through months of a Whatsapp conversation) and reveal character (after the baby is born, Carlos’s change of attitude is signalled by baby photos filling his photo archive).

If this digital world is a refuge from reality, the film nonetheless points to the personal damage caused by experiencing life at one remove when Natalia later has to watch her child’s development via Skype. In its representation of a generation precariously adrift – young adults for whom gaining employment necessitates their exploitation or emigration – Beautiful Youth suggests that technology both connects and isolates.