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Iceland, a sparsely populated island nation in the North Atlantic, has a climate that is tempered by the warm currents of the Gulf Stream. But Dagur Kari’s film, Noi Albinoi, isn’t placed in the relatively cosmopolitan environs of the capital, Reykjavik; Kari locates his coming-of-age tale in a remote village in the north of the island. Geography is a major character in the film–penetrating cold, omnipresent snow and ice, and the isolated and lonely desolation permeate every frame of the film and the psyches of its characters. Looming over the village, which is perched along the edge of a fjord, is a monolithic massif, an icy, menacing presence.
Seventeen-year-old Noi (Tomas Lemarquis) lives with his grandmother (Anna Fridriksdottir) who fires a rifle out of his bedroom window to get him awake in the morning and off to school. That Noi is bright is made clear in a number of ways–while being interviewed by a school psychologist, he speedily solves a Rubik’s Cube, for example. And he is dexterous alone in the kitchen, whipping up some pancakes. Making chopped liver with his Dad (Throstur Leo Gunnarsson) has less successful, but funny, results.
But Noi has become a slacker–bored, uninvolved, and passively rebellious. Possible relief shows up in the form of a pretty girl, Iris, who provides a ray of hope–a possible companion in escape.
Escape is, indeed, a principal theme of the film. Fantasies of tropical islands are everywhere, from the palm-patterned wallpaper of a room in the house, to the Hawaiian shirt that Noi’s father wears, to the view of a tropical beach that is seen through a stereopticon that Grandma gives Noi for his birthday. There’s even a palm tree on his birthday cake. His father has already escaped into alcoholism and Grandma passes the time doing jigsaw puzzles. Noi himself escapes into his own secret room in the cellar of the house.
Noi Albinoi, while using Noi as the backbone of its very slight plot, seems as much or more about the toll of living in harsh and isolated conditions as it is about adolescent anomie. It’s a film entirely built on situational circumstances and small events, with little in the way of genuine character development. But Kari, nonetheless, is vividly observant and holds the attention with imaginative detail and a veneer of deadpan humor, like thin ice over a sea of despair.