In the almost year since movie theaters shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic, many worried cinephiles have waxed lyrical about what we lose if we lose theaters. Despite the doomsaying, though, movie culture didn't significantly suffer in 2020. Most movies are fine being watched on your TV! But there are also films like The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, showing this week as part of the virtual Sundance Film Festival, where it becomes obvious how exhibition alters the way we watch certain movies.
This year, Sundance moved almost entirely online, a decision that not only makes it safe for the industry professionals whose year revolves around the film festival, but accessible to fans for whom traveling to Park City is usually prohibitive. There is much to celebrate about what Sundance has accomplished in 2021, in terms of their top-notch programming, seamless technical transition, and tools like offering closed captions on every film (seriously: thank you).
But watching The Most Beautiful Boy in the World reveals limitations outside the scope of what Sundance can control this year. The documentary is about Björn Andrésen, whose life unraveled after being cast by Italian director Luchino Visconti in Death in Venice at the age of 15, a result of Visconti's worldwide search for "the most beautiful boy." Watching at home on my couch, on TV, I kept thinking how the documentary would be a good fit for something like Hulu or Netflix: even the trailer plays like a teaser for a lurid, cheaply-made "where are they now" special, with its grainy archival footage of Visconti licking his lips, sensational voice-overs, overly-dramatic music, and tacky negative images.
Over the runtime of The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, though, I realized my perception of the movie was all off. Far from sensational, the documentary is a much quieter and more artful examination of a life warped by grief and loneliness. Moody original camerawork by cinematographer Erik Vallsten extends the story beyond the true-crime-like archival footage, finding Andrésen, now in his 60s, retracing the scars of his past. A letter, which is effectively a suicide note, gives the film a poetic frame for its conclusion. They're details I'd never have overlooked in the setting of a film festival's theater, which invites a higher artistic expectation; on my couch, where I've previously queued up Tiger King and Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer, I have, alas, a much different eye.
Juno Films, a boutique distributor, acquired The Most Beautiful Boy in the World just ahead of its Sundance premiere, and Variety reports that the plan is to "release the film in theaters in May 2021." Still, it seems risky, at this point, to hope theaters are reopened by the spring. Ideally, Juno pushes back the theatrical premiere rather than releasing it online. Not every viewer will make my mistake of underestimating The Most Beautiful Boy in the World on the small screen, but every one who does is a preventable shame. Give it a prestige documentary rollout — on the big screen alone.