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Northern Exposure

Albino antihero makes an impractical bid for freedom in a low-key Icelandic slacker drama

 Nói strands a low-melanin antihero in a stark, ends-of-the-earth setting to evoke a near hallucinatory sense of white-on-white claustrophobia. The titular 17-year-old (Tómas Lemarquis) is a lanky, pale loner (the film's original title: Nói Albinói); he lives in a desolate, slush-blanketed Icelandic fjord village, sandwiched between wind-blasted coastline and frozen mountains. An oppressive, obstinate presence, the snow is an all too tangible symbol of imprisonment. The first scene—which has Nói engaged in Sisyphean labor, clearing a path from his front door through neck-high accumulation—gains morbid metaphorical resonance by the end. Nói can truly dig out from under only after he finds himself buried deeper than ever before.

Written and directed by first-timer Dagur Kári, Nói is a lightly comic slacker drama that takes the desperation of teenage tedium seriously. The protagonist lives with his dotty grandma, whose preferred method of waking him is with a shotgun blast. His taxi-driver dad is a pickled deadbeat out of a Kaurismäki movie—he has a cat named Elvis Aaron and does a mean karaoke "In the Ghetto." Nói's intelligence is, if anything, a liability. He casually solves a Rubik's Cube while a school psychiatrist is grilling him, and is pronounced a "wonder kid." But he'd rather not attend the dreary classes, and the teachers deem it the final straw when he has a friend set up a tape recorder on his desk as a proxy. To pass the time, he rigs the slot machine at the gas-station coffee shop and clumsilypursues the new girl in town who works there. The viewer soon begins to share Nói's stir-crazy frustration—the outdoors are shrouded in a permanent gloaming of hypothermic temperatures and failing light; the dim interiors of the sad prefab houses have been wallpapered in the most moribund shades of green. No wonder the local bookseller is reading out loud from Either/Or: "Hang yourself and you will regret it. Do not hang yourself and you will also regret it." Nói's manifesto is in fact best summed up by another Kierkegaard quote: "Boredom is the root of all evil."

View to a chill: Lemarquis
photo: Palm Pictures
View to a chill: Lemarquis

Details

Ni
Written and directed by Dagur Kári
Palm, opens March 19

The local tourist board must find it vexing that Icelandic films—or the ones that get exported anyway—so often portray the country as a miserably icy wasteland to be escaped at all costs (101 Reykjavík essayed the same theme in a jokier vein). Gazing at a world map, Nói observes, "Look at Iceland. It's like a spit." The film is intimately attuned to his deep yearning for deliverance—to warmer climes, naturally. As in the recent Abouna, where two adolescent boys from landlocked Chad enshrine a poster of the sea, Nói dreams of Hawaii: For his birthday, his grandmother makes an elaborate tropical-themed cake and gives him a children's View-Master, through which he squints wistfully at a potbellied Polynesian and a beach dotted with perfectly spaced palm trees. Kári, whose band, Slowblow, contributed the glum, glacial soundtrack, engineers comedy as brittle as an icicle (thawing out for a few hilarious bits of business: a kitchen accident while making blood sausage, Noi's father taking an ax to a piano). But the lugubrious humor never detracts from the harsh reality: Nói's existence is intolerable, and the kid's hopelessly impractical late bid for freedom is the movie's most indelible image—a blur of color and motion against a still expanse of white.

 
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