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.”
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.