Icelandic cinema digs out a major new talent with “Noi Albinoi,” the feature debut of award-winning short filmmaker Dagur Kari. Portrait of a gifted teen rebelling against life’s limits in a frozen coastal village communicates directly with auds through an inspired mix of realism, humor and metaphor. Simultaneously unveiled at the Rotterdam, Gothenburg and Angers fests, it looked poised to take home major prizes in all three (it copped the Moviezone youth jury award in Rotterdam) and should have little trouble selling to arthouse distribs in major territories.
In a remote Icelandic fjord cut off from the rest of the world in wintertime by huge mountains of ice and snow, life is reduced to minimum terms. There is a school, a filling station-cum-coffee shop, and a scattering of corrugated prefab houses where the inhabitants hole up. Here Noi, a bald, grinning boy of 17 (newcomer Tomas Lemarquis), lives with his grandma, Lina (Anna Fridriksdottir). His father, Kiddi (Throstur Leo Gunnarsson), lives by himself, struggling with alcoholism; his mother is simply absent.
Noi cuts school regularly to read in his secret basement lair. Fed up with his smart-ass antics — like sending a tape recorder to school instead of coming himself — the math teacher has him expelled as a bad example to the other, nose-to-the-grindstone, students. We know even before Noi turns in brilliant results on an IQ test that he’s no dolt, but rather the most alive person in a claustrophobic world that sums up all the restrictions of youth.
When Noi meets lovely Iris (Elin Hansdottir), the new gas-station attendant from the city, things start looking up. There’s nothing to do on their dates but stand around in the cold or break into a zoological museum. Noi hatches a madcap scheme to rob the bank and escape with Iris, but it fails miserably when the tellers just scold him.
Taking auds by surprise, the gentle comedy used to lighten the film in every dramatic moment unexpectedly gives way to tragic catastrophe. But the film manages to take yet another turn in its final sequence, leaving the door open to hope.
In the main role, young Lemarquis, looking like Bart Simpson sprung to life, commands attention with his energy and wide-eyed awkwardness. Gunnarsson is solid as the drunken father trying to help Noi grow up by negative example.
Rasmus Videbaek’s lensing contrasts nature’s stunning but dangerous whiteness to the dark green-gray interiors of human spaces. With his references to palm trees and Polynesia, production designer Jon Steinar Ragnarsson creates an atmosphere of gentle, silly kitsch that feeds into the film’s understated humor. The very mellow, occasionally poignant score is furnished by Kari’s own band, slowblow.
Original title literally means “Noi the Albino,” though he’s simply weird looking rather than white-haired and pale skinned.