Dir: Dagur Kari. Ice-Ger-UK-Den. 2003. 95mins.
Noi The Albino, the debut feature of young Icelandic director Dagur Kari, is one of those films that seem absolutely of their own place and yet curiously cosmopolitan. With its characteristically Nordic comic melancholia and strikingly photographed scenery, it could not have been made anywhere but in Iceland, yet its theme of small-town teenage frustration chimes with any number of independent films from the US or indeed anywhere. Its mixture of traditional art-film lyricism with Kaurismaki-style black humour, youthful romanticism and reassuring genre familiarity should make it a healthy commercial prospect on the specialist circuit as well as a popular fixture on the festival circuit. Premiered in Rotterdam, this much-tipped front runner for the Tiger Awards surprisingly failed to score with the competition jury - although it took the Nordic Film Award and the FIPRESCI Award at Goteborg - but nevertheless proved the festival's most conspicuous sales success. Franco-German production and sales outfit The Co-Production Office has already secured sales to France (Haut Et Court) and Italy (Lucky Red): others are sure to follow after it screens at Berlin
Despite the title, hero Noi (Lemarquis) is not actually an albino, because, Kari says, he could not find an albino for the role. Even so, he is a very conspicuous outsider - a bald, gangling 17-year-old in a tea-cosy hat who lives with his grandmother on a desolate, snowbound fjord. Noi is generally treated like a lost cause, both by schoolmates and teachers, although it soon becomes clear that this born rebel is simply too smart to conform. A defiant slacker, he drives his teachers to distraction and spends most of his free time hiding in his basement or taking pot shots at glaciers with a rifle. Adult mentors are hard to come by - his father (Gunnarsson) is a boozy, self-pitying Elvis fan, and his only real ally is a glum bookseller who quotes Kierkegaard at him: "Hang yourself, you'll regret it. Don't hang yourself, you'll regret it."
Noi finally finds a soulmate in the bookseller's daughter Iris (Hansdottir), who works at the local gas station. They instantly hit it off and plan an escape to Hawaii, but Noi's attempt at decisive action takes a markedly self-destructive turn. Even when he attempts armed bank robbery, the phlegmatic locals won't take him seriously.
The mood at times resembles a tougher version of the morose lyricism in Lasse Hallstrom's Oscar-nominated My Life As A Dog, but more than anything recalls the tartly tender comedy of vintage Bill Forsyth - especially the scene where two teachers wring their hands over Noi's case or when Noi teaches Iris to smoke by mouthing the word "Amen". Kari has a flair for poker-faced sight gags, though they are most successful when low-key: Noi's grandma half-heartedly exercising to the radio is a hoot, whereas the coup de theatre with a basin of blood is too manifestly set up for comfort. Kari's trump card is an out-of-nowhere apocalyptic twist that may outrage some audiences but it shows an audaciously cavalier regard for his characters and his fictional world. It comes as no surprise to learn that Kari regards The Simpsons as a prime influence.
Although it finally comes across as a little unfocused, Noi The Albino certainly creates an appetite to see more work from Kari, who has already signed up to make a Dogme film. A versatile talent, he also co-composed the film's score with his group slowblow. The cast, including many non-professionals, rise to the occasion without overworking the eccentricity, and the two young leads can also be expected to go places, especially the energetic, dryly humorous Lemarquis.
Prod co: Zik Zak Filmworks, Essential Filmproduktion, The Bureau, M&M Productions, The Film Council
Int'l sales: The Coproduction Office
Prods: Philippe Bober, Kim Magnusson, Skúli Fr Malmquist, Thorir Snær Sigurjonsson
Scr: Dagur Kari
Cinematography: Rasmus Videbaek
Ed: Daniel Dencik
Prod des: Jon Steinar Ragnarsson
Main cast: Tomas Lemarquis, Throstur Leo Gunnarsson, Elin Hansdottir, Anna Fridriksdottir, Hjalti Rognvaldsson