Nothing much ever happens in the snow-sodden village that Icelandic writer/director Dagur Kári chose for the setting of his film Nói. So naturally, not much happens in the film, which revolves around a high-IQ 17-year-old who spends his days shooting at icicles, throwing rocks at rainbows, quietly defying authority and daydreaming of a way to get out.
Nói takes place in a country about which most Americans know only what articles about Björk happen to reveal, and passing time with its disenchanted title character may leave you believing life there is so dismal that everybody naturally wants to leave (or that if they don't, they should). Yet this is a thriving culture with a language that's barely changed in 1,000 years. How do they do it? How have they done it? There must be more to Icelandic life than Kári imagines here.
In fact, Nói is a somewhat familiar movie: Call it Catcher in the Wry meets Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish director whose wonderfully languid films about his own arctic homeland have more caustic wit and intellectual charm than Kári's bleak coming-of-age primer.
Nói's taciturn grandmother -- who does diffident calisthenics each morning to a TV exercise show -- has to fire a shotgun out Nói's bedroom window to wake him up. His father, an alcoholic cabbie who drives the night shift (which, in this ghost town, seems like selling snow to Eskimos), has a cat named Elvis Aron. At school, Nói borrows a teacher's pencil to take a test then turns in the paper with only his name written on it. And the owner of the town's bookstore -- a man so sour that he has no use even for Kierkegaard -- warns him not to get too flirty with the pretty new girl at the local convenience store because she happens to be his daughter (although in a town so small, it's hard to believe that Nói didn't already know her).
But Nói -- with his shaved head and milky skin -- does romance the dusky redhead, with her eager blessing. For a date one night they break into the local museum, where they walk among stuffed animals, and where a light-up map of the world has no little red bulb for Iceland. (Kári's film is rife with metaphors like these.) Later, a fortune-teller divines death in Nói's future. So in a moment of clarity and madness, he finally takes action.
For Nói, the exotic unattainable outside world is a series of color slide cards that he looks at with elation through the little red View-Master that his grandma gives him as a gift. But Kári, true to his vision, has other ideas, and he ends his movie with one of the cruelest things I've ever seen a writer do to his character, a deus ex machina that makes Bergman look like a Sunday walk in the park. In Icelandic, with subtitles.