That Director Cesc Gay in his new film Nico and Dani (Krámpack) should endeavor to take on Coming of Age and Coming Out in one fell swoop is impressive in itself. That he should succeed in treating such poignant subjects with astonishing grace and subtlety, however, is truly a credit to his artistic integrity and cinematic vision. A winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Nico and Dani (based on the stage play Krámpack, by Jordi Sánchez) tells the story of two seventeen year-old boys, best friends since grade school, and the summer their world cracks open.
It is a story belonging to summer and no other time - to no other place than the place life finds us when we realize, with no small amount of confusion, that we are no longer children and as yet have no idea what to do with adulthood. For Nico (played with raw, rare sincerity by newcomer Jordi Vilches) and Dani (Fernando Ramallo, in a role he seems born to inhabit), that place is a sleepy town on Spain's Mediterranean coast, where Dani lives with his parents in a lush beach house. Once a trip to Egypt rids Dani of Mom and Dad for the summer, he is left in the care of a sassy English tutor, Sonia (Ana Gracia), and a blithe, oblivious housekeeper (Myriam Mézières). Which is to say, Dani is free to do exactly as he pleases along with his cohort Nico, who has made the train ride from Barcelona to share in any summer adventures that may (and do) arise.
While bookish, would-be writer Dani is eager to seek adventure where he and his friend have always found it - in hunting, exploring, and sneaking a little weed here and there - this particular summer finds Nico changed, and his attentions are suddenly turned toward Elena (a nubile Marieta Orozco) and her shy younger cousin, Berta (Esther Nubiola). These are girls of the summer variety: ripe and careless and beautiful, girls who, though good-hearted and innocent enough, have no apparent interest in either promises or grudges. For Nico, Elena and Berta are as much a part of the summer as the absence of school, the beach, and his all-consuming desire to rid himself of his pesky virginity. Ultimately, Nico's preoccupation with Elena renders him oblivious not only to Dani's hurt bewilderment at his newly awakened interest in girls, but also to his best friend's newly awakened interest in boys, namely in Nico himself.
For Nico, the krámpack (that is, mutual masturbation) he shares with Dani in the evenings is a matter of curiosity and convenience - who better than a best pal to do something for you that sheer repetition has bored you out of?- but for Dani these sexual exchanges become transformative acts of sincere love. Therein lies the rub, and what emerges is a heartfelt, sensitive exploration of youth, sexual identity and the elusive spell of love.
A delightful antidote to what has become the norm in American cinema, Nico and Dani is a film about real, honest-to-goodness boys: boys who scowl, boys who are endlessly amused by their own genitalia, boys who push and shove each other by way of greeting but still wonder at the end of the day just how the world could possibly keep turning if someday their friendship should end. Most refreshingly, this is a film in which boys are played by boys who actually look and act like boys. Ramallo and Vilches both possess those teenaged-boy shoulder blades that could slice through melons; both are awkward yet graceful, in the way of new deer. The youthful earnestness that each of these fine actors brings to his role is what powers the duo's onscreen dynamic - a phenomenon that is at times painful to behold, it is so lovely and full of honesty and truth. Nico and Dani consists in large part of scenes shared by Ramallo and Vilches, scenes upon which the success of the entire film rests, and the two do not disappoint.
Ramallo's Dani is conflicted and broodish, agog with love, fear and jealousy. His confession to Nico provides the film with one of its finest, most heartbreaking moments. Vilches as Nico is equally likeable - girl-crazy and senseless though he at times appears to be, changes in his character emerge that suggest what lies at the very heart of the film: a lesson about love, wherein we learn that the desire to possess and protect another human being is as much an expression of friendship as it is an expression of romantic love, at times even more so.
While Nico and Dani boasts many strengths (breathtaking cinematography, a solid and engaging supporting cast, a mood as addictive as nostalgia itself), there is no question that the film belongs, first and foremost, to its two young stars. It belongs to them and to Gay, who casts a directorial eye on youth, homosexuality, and intimacy as perceptive and frank as it is affectionate and honest.
In Spanish with English subtitles. Not rated by the MPAA. Due to a last minute distribution error, this film will open next Friday (June 29) at the Kentucky Theater.
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