Two boys…and the summer that would change everything.
Nico and Dani is a Spanish coming-of-age story about two friends at the peak of burgeoning sexuality. They want to get laid more than anything. It has been said many ways by many movie critics, but the truism is inescapable: had it been made in America, Nico and Dani would have featured copious fart and breast jokes with an overly forced gross-out or three. Instead, we get a realistic emotional portrayal of sexual frustration, friendship, and angst. Depending on your disposition, the film is helped or hindered by graphic depictions of teenage homosexual acts, very subtle nuances, and open-endedness.
Facts of the Case
Nico (Jordi Vilches) travels to visit his longtime friend Dani (Fernando Ramallo) for the summer. Dani's parents own a condo at a beach near Barcelona. They go on a trip and leave Nico and Dani to their own devices for a couple weeks. The two are ostensibly under the care of a housekeeper and tutor, but are actually as free as birds.
Nico encounters a pair of eligible girls, Elena (Marieta Orozco) and Berta (Esther Nubiola), and immediately goes into hormonal overdrive. Nico's tunnel focus on getting laid annoys Dani because Dani is attracted to Nico. The two vent sexual steam by masturbating each other every night. These nightly encounters fail to deter Nico from his mission, which drives Dani into despair. Fortunately, gay author Julian (Chisco Amado) is nearby to ease Dani's angst.
(Spoilers in this paragraph.) Let's get this out of the way early: I found Dani thoroughly abhorrent. Many critics have praised Nico and Dani as a sweet, authentic, risk-taking coming of age story about diverging sexual identities. In many ways, this viewpoint is understandable, yet I was uncomfortable with the mantis-like predatory stare Dani fixed on everyone, sizing up how they could help him. Dani had an agenda; it was all that mattered. He used or disregarded everyone in his path to achieve his whim and thwart obstacles. Dani wanted Nico, so he enticed Nico manually, orally, and anally. When sex failed to do the trick, Dani used people. He manipulated Nico's girlfriend by lying to her about Nico's sexuality. He drugged and date raped his own "girlfriend" to test his sexuality and/or make the girls leave early, then cruelly ignored her from then on. He casually rejected or disobeyed every adult. And he cared nothing for Nico's feelings. Every act gave me a lower opinion of Dani. It is true that Nico often shows equal disregard for Dani's needs, and is complicit in Dani's acts. However, Dani is usually the catalyst and shows a consistent pattern of manipulation. The film feels realistic, but not in the sweetly nostalgic way many people have summarized it. Perhaps I'm the wrong demographic for Nico and Dani, but I have never drugged someone against their will, raped an unconscious girl, or forced anal sex on my friends.
That said, Nico and Dani does capture the magical, unfettered spirit of the coming of age tale. The kids frolic without oversight, lending a carefree intensity to their acts. They romp on the beach, sneak into bars, and experiment with all sorts of adult behaviors. These earnest strivings for maturity create a believable coming of age patina. The setting doesn't hurt. Director Cesc Gay puts forward the best foot of the Spanish coast. I wanted to relax alongside the characters in their sun-drenched exploits and never ending evenings.
Nico and Dani contains a healthy amount of situational humor. Nico is obsessed with his Adam's apple. Dani asserts mature coolness by smoking and drinking in a crowd of boys a foot taller than he. The humor is a subtle and sophisticated counterpoint to the "semen in the beer" antics favored by American teen comedies. Present also are scenes of intense humanity: desperation, turmoil, jealousy, and indifference are balanced by ineffable moments of quiet poignancy. Nico and Dani rewards careful observation of human nuance.
This delicate emotionality would not be possible without sure direction and solid acting. Gay ambles from time to time, but wrings out complex performances from all the key actors. It requires courage and surety of self to abstain from commentary and let the camera capture the acting. Gay shows a deft touch that grants extra layers to the film.
His cast rises to the occasion. Vilches, Ramallo, Orozco, and Nubiola
portray authentic teenage angst. I immersed myself in recollections of formative
years, encouraged by cues from these four actors. Their awkwardness,
overextended maturity, mercurial temperaments, and easy companionship were all
spot on. Equally believable were the adults: tutor Sonja (Ana Gracia) was more
interested in her own summer exploits than in tutoring Dani. Writer Julian was
carefree and immature enough to entice Dani into age-inappropriate situations.
The cast responds to each other, forming a unity of magnified dysfunction. One
notable exception is the remarkably cool dynamic between Nico and Dani. There is
rarely a reaction to the action. Dani affronts Nico, Nico affronts Dani, yet
neither gets riled nor even seems to notice. This antiseptic "morning
after" syndrome leads to the criticism that Nico and Dani lacks
dramatic contrast. Most viewers will find the string of authentic human moments
Finally, the music deserves note. The contemporary score is used to great effect, highlighting certain moods and accenting moments of angst. The songs are energetic and jangly without being annoying. The aforementioned "La Chatunga" is catchy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Nico and Dani seems unfocused at times. There are moments of conversation that don't seem to further mood or plot. One can depict a languid summer without being languid. Factor in the curious detachment of the leads from their actions, and you have a case for boredom. I think Gay was simply too subtle at times, which is a small crime in light of the authentic discourse he achieved.
Less forgivable is the video quality. The baseline is a grainy, somewhat scratched image that lacks detail. Blacks are uneven, but the colors are warm enough. Edge enhancement is present but only obtrusive in certain close-ups. The real culprit here is persistent and distracting digital noise reduction. The Nico and Dani DVD was mastered almost two years ago; DNR algorithms have improved since then, but there is no excuse for the overzealous noise reduction present in this DVD. Diagonal movement obliterated detail to the point where entire objects were disappearing. I laughed to myself as lamps and other objects dissolved into blurs and reappeared later. Equally disconcerting was the moiré-like crawl in backgrounds, faces, and clothes. Check out the swirling hexagon lamp, or Sonja's shimmery striped shirt, or the disappearing pipes on the kitchen wall.
In some ways, Nico and Dani follows the flock of trendy homoerotic Spanish films that are the rage of late. The film distinguishes itself through fine acting and a delicate environment of confusing sexual identity issues. It feels real and feels relevant. If you can forgive some despicable acts, Nico and Dani might charm you. The confirmation of enduring friendship is ultimately uplifting.
Dani is remanded to the juvenile correctional facility for conduct unbecoming a minor. The rest of the cast is free to go. New Yorker Films is ordered to review its DVD authoring policies. Court is adjourned!
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