Boy wonders

Nico and Dani takes a sophisticated look at the adolescent libido

Nico and Dani is the second film of the year, after Sexy Beast, set on the spectacular Spanish coast, where whitewashed villas dominated by breathtaking cerulean pools hug the landscape and male characters bond over the local pastime of rabbit hunting.

But Nico and Dani's mismatched couple couldn't be further from the confident, supremely macho men of Sexy Beast.

With an Adam's apple that juts farther out of his body than his receding chin, Nico (Jordi Vilches) looks like the offspring of Shelley Duvall and Summer of Sam's Adrien Brody. A twerpy teen, perpetually tripping over his own limbs, Nico's obsession is losing his virginity, a preoccupation that has him devoting every waking moment to thoughts of the fairer sex. At the opening of the film, Nico travels to his best friend Dani's summer home, a luxurious spread where a sexy female housekeeper and an equally beguiling tutor keep an eye on the pair's comings and goings, but function more as peers than adult role models.

Dani (Fernando Ramallo) is the fair-haired prince to Nico's toad, blessed with the rare teenage double-whammy of beauty and grace, who draws girls to him with a natural ease. While Nico pursues girls with the vigor of the truly desperate, Dani sits back and has the chic vacationing schoolgirls come to him.

Director Cesc Gay has a comical flair for showing the remnants of childishness still clinging to 16-year-old Nico and Dani even as they make their many desperate plays for the ladies. At a party, they light and then smoke their cigarettes in hilarious tandem, dance with each other in the coupled-off crowd and behave like roughhousing silly boys at a grown-up function.

A film that initially seems like a more acutely observed, intelligent, Spanish variant on the male bonding and sexual exploits of puerile American fare like Porky's and The Last American Virgin, Nico and Dani moves the homoerotic subtext of those films to the forefront. Shining examples of the polymorphous perversity of the adolescent libido, Nico and Dani spend more time lying together in bed practicing their sexual maneuvers (aka "krampack" in Spanish slang) on each other than on any girls. And in the thick-headed, slowly-dawning manner of boys still more like kids than adults, Nico seems the last to figure out that the sexual experimentation he and Dani have engaged in isn't just practice for Dani.

A brutally, often uncomfortably frank film about the fierce, intense friendships that develop between teenagers, Nico and Dani shows the difficult, lonely gap opening up between these two friends as Dani's affection for Nico goes unreturned. Rousing, stringy music, moony expressions: there is a whole catalog of cinematic shorthand used to show passion onscreen. But it is the rare film able to convey the overwhelming psychological anguish of a teenage crush, and Nico and Dani — in large part relying on a marvelous performance from Vilches as Nico — shows the turmoil of both the love object and the lover.

While Dani struggles with his burgeoning homosexuality and obsession with Nico, Nico is in hot pursuit of a more experienced, gamine teenager, Elena (Marieta Orozco), also vacationing at this beach resort outside of Barcelona. Dani watches their increasing intimacy with a heart-crushing horror.

Nico and Dani surprises not only for its painfully believable portrait of the vulnerable, precarious adolescent psyche, but for its refusal to fit into a conventional mold. Not easily pigeonholed (despite some early resemblance to teen sex comedy) as a coming-of-age film or a "coming out" film, Nico and Dani borrows its bluesy soundtrack and cocksure attitude from the Tarantino or Guy Ritchie school of flash-indies, but it gets its messy haze of emotions from the best character studies of squishy adolescence like Heavenly Creatures or Jane Campion's 2 Friends and A Girl's Own Story.

Nico and Dani is a well-told tale with a surfeit of poignant, often disturbing glimpses into forgotten childish reveries and longings, as when Dani manufactures several excuses to hold an object of Nico's or dress him in a favorite shirt, or in some way create a token of his love object. And for every insight into the complex nature of intimacy, there are disturbing examples of sexual abuse and situations that veer close to rape and exploitation. Such scenes, like one where an older gay man contemplates seducing Dani, show that despite their frantic need to join adulthood's ranks, they're still children, whose bodies may be ready, but whose minds aren't.??

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