The European cinema is much more open about sexual reality, nudity and profanity than its American counterpart. The coming-of-age drama “Nico and Dani” (first released in Spain as “Krámpack”) from the Catalonian filmmaker Cesc Gay is a case in point.
At 17, Nico and Dani are just old enough to be on the threshold of leaving childhood behind, being troubled by sex, being eager (in Nico’s case) to lose virginity at once, and yet still inexperienced and confused by their own longings and by the complex, often hypocritical codes of an adult world. The film covers a week-plus summer holiday in a Mediterranean village during which, with Dani’s parents away while Nico arrives for a visit, the two friends have a house to themselves. The only adult contact they have is only part-time company from Myriam, the sexy but lonely Moroccan cook, and Sofia, Dani’s pretty and ironic tutor for English classes.
Nico repairs a motorcycle and the boys watch videos, drink, smoke cigarettes and joints, bicycle and go to the beach, the town, bars and parties. Most significantly for them, they begin to confront their own maturity, their changing psyches, bodies and sexuality. They must come to terms with the past and present and with the nature of their relationship with one another. Dani voices his premonition that things would not be the same as the previous summer, and the boyish bonding in hunting and fishing (which often returns as male bonding in middle age) is put on hold as Nico actively seeks sexual experiences for them with Elena and Berta, two girls also primed to lose their innocence.
It would spoil the finely told story to reveal more, though the situation is further complicated by the homosexual group centered around Sonia and the 20-something novelist Julián, a former pupil and “friend” of Dani’s father. Dani and Nico engage in sexual bantering and in the tentative homosexual play that Kinsey reported to be common among adolescents (the original title “Krámpack” refers to a method of masturbating, in this case in the other’s presence), but the two boys are at the point where each is to decide his own path.
Adapting his film from a stage play, director Cesc Gay has achieved a rewarding balance of sympathy, pathos, humor and realism, and he has coaxed excellent performances from a group of both experienced and debuting actors. Setting and story place a heavy emphasis on the two boys, small blonde Dani (Fernando Ramallo, a Spanish teen idol) and intense-eyed scrawny Nico (Jordi Vilches, a circus performer in his first film), and the dialogue makes effective use of Spaniards’ vibrant mix of profanity and slang. Backed by its well selected but unobtrusive mixture of music, the film conveys not only the insecurity and yearning of very young manhood, but also captures the texture of a type of summer town and way of life common to southern Europe.
Based on some of the viewers’ laughter and other reactions at points during the New York press screening for the film (and on the fact there were walkouts at a critics showing at Cannes last year, where “Nico and Dani” won a Special Award), it would seem that some American audiences will miss what the film is all about. Perhaps Marlene Dietrich hit the nail on the head years ago when she mused: “In America, sex is an obsession; in Europe, it is a fact of life.”
“Nico and Dani” sensitively pictures what must be the universal angst of being grown-up yet not grown. Cesc Gay’s film offers gentle humor and a rare handling of an emotional and important theme.