Summer Thrills, Winter Chills

Season of the itch: Ramallo and Vilches as Dani and Nico.
photo courtesy of Avatar Films

Forgoing the fairy-tale uplift commonly associated with horny coming-of-age/coming-out fumblings, Nico and Dani acquires resonance through patient observation, muted empathy, and boldly suggestive depictions of sexual acts between minors—the original, more evocative Spanish title, Krámpack, translates as "handjob."

The film takes great pains to present its 16-year-old protagonists as opposites: Nico (Jordi Vilches), who wants to be a mechanic, is a dark and scrawny urchin, with wide, wary eyes that belie a contained self-assurance. Vaguely Nordic-looking Dani (Fernando Ramallo), who has rich parents and literary aspirations, is an inquisitive, somewhat bewildered kid with bratty tendencies. Vacationing at Dani's beach house while his folks are away, the boys occupy themselves nightly with the mutual administration of krámpacks and soon, upon Dani's urgings, with more imaginative forms of friction generation; their tentative gropings are staged discreetly but with a conspicuous air of provocation, in lengthy, silent sequences confidently poised between candor and lechery. When the pair start pursuing girls—Nico with rather more enthusiasm than Dani—requisite complications ensue.

Director Cesc Gay often lacks imagination—Nico and Dani is prosaically photographed (almost entirely in studious TV-ish medium shot), punctuated by pointless intertitles, and scored to a stubbornly peppy squalling guitar. But he grasps the thrilling, disorienting shapelessness of teen desire and coaxes superbly unaffected performances from his young leads. Gay concerns himself equally with both boys' predicaments, not just Dani's jealousy and struggle with rejection (the obvious subject) but also Nico's wariness at his pal's increasingly amorous designs and their heartfelt attempts to tacitly renegotiate the terms of their friendship. The movie avoids grand conclusions, and its restraint heightens the clarity of the perspective shifts that constitute a rite of passage; Nico and Dani is a modest chronicle of a summer during which everything had to change so that everything could stay the same.

You can see the strenuously grand conclusion of Alex Winter's clammy psychological thriller, Fever, coming a mile off, but the director's impeccably chic expressionism and Henry Thomas's persuasive, dread-soaked performance make the wait a painless one. Thomas plays a paranoid Brooklyn artist-drawing instructor who's estranged from his well-off family and plagued by cold-sweat nightmares and sleepwalking bouts; his condition mysteriously worsens when his Polish landlord turns up dead and a sinister Scottish crank moves in upstairs.

Winter's malnourished scenario forces him to abandon the initial elegant composure of the storytelling for a repetitive pattern of jump-starts and an awkward infusion of backstory. But Fever sustains a convincingly spooky ambience throughout, drawing from meticulously grungy sets and atmospheric locations (Greenpoint and the Lower East Side). Winter, still best known as Keanu Reeves's costar in the Bill & Ted films, achieves a degree of technical polish rare among American independents—director of photography Joe DeSalvo pulls off a painterly tour de force of sickly grays and greens, and Col Anderson's distinctive audio design weaves the creaks, clanks, and thumps of our hero's sleepless nights into an eerie symphony of tenement sounds.

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