A beachhouse, no parents, and the fleeting pleasures of “krampach”
Coming-of-age dramas are dicey material at best, ever in danger of succumbing to John Hughes-style clichés about bourgeois brats, or at the other extreme, trading in voyeuristic chickenhawkery in the grim manner of Larry Clark’s Kids. Adding a gay element to the mix, while no guarantee of success, seems to have improved the genre, if examples like Beautiful Thing, Edge of Seventeen, and the glorious babydyke dramedy Show Me Love are any indication. What these films have in common is a quiet power, a sense of humor, and an ungrudging respect for their teens in the difficult double transition from “straight” children into gay adults.
Nico and Dani joins this select group as one of the best in the genre – gay or straight. Directed by Spanish director Cesc Gay, the film is refreshingly upfront in treating that often taboo subject, adolescent sexuality. It’s even egalitarian in its approach, generously tracking one boy’s awakening to his gayness and another’s to his straightness while exploring the sweet, deep bond between them.
Based on a popular Spanish play, Nico and Dani opens with a consummation devoutly wished by every horny teenager: a gorgeous beachhouse and no parents. When Mom and Dad leave for an Egyptian vacation, handsome 16-year-old Dani (Fernando Ramallo) invites his best friend Nico (Jordi Vilches) to spend the summer with him in a seaside resort outside Barcelona. They’re attended vaguely by a maid, who spends more time begging the boys to take her to a party than keeping house, and a female friend of the family who drops by now and then. This leaves the boys plenty of time to court two of the local girls, Elena (Marieta Orozco) and Berta (Esther Nubiola), but also to discover an increasingly strong interest in each other.
As in many such budding relationships, their feelings aren’t entirely in sync. Dani, a sensitive boy who’s writing a novel, finds his feelings for his friend becoming too intense to handle. Nico, eager to lose his virginity before hitting 17, is more casual. They spend time playing “table football,” tinkering on a motorcycle, swimming, and hunting, but at night they engage in “Krampack” – Spanish slang for “a hand job with a little head.” Nico’s happy to participate, but these innocent encounters take on larger significance for Dani. Dani introduces Nico to a novel way to masturbate that many viewers may want to try for themselves. They sit on their hand until it becomes numb, and then imagine it’s somebody else’s hand getting them off. Significantly, when Nico asks who Dani’s dream-masturbator is, he says “I don’t know,” not yet able to come to grips with the fact that it’s Nico he’s thinking of. For Nico, the answer is an amusingly laconic “the TV anchorwoman.”
The sex in Nico and Dani is fresh without being overly titillating, as if discovery of sexuality is as natural as taking a swim. When Nico finally goes to bed with Elena – after much discussion between them – the camera withdraws gracefully as Elena disrobes. The film also manages a seemingly impossible feat, making the sex between Nico and Dani sensual without being lurid or pandering. During one of their mutual masturbation scenes, Dani turns out the light and his head drifts down in the second part of the “Krampack” move that Nico, at first startled, doesn’t resist.
The script’s richness of incident and constant stream of wit gives a context to the action and characters that makes it consistently engaging. In a witty scene where the boys are shopping for condoms, Dani complains about the girls’ endless intrusions on their fun: “We spend all day running around with the boomerang and sandwiches,” he laments. The pragmatic Nico’s mind is elsewhere: “We need ice and rubbers. Get plenty, just in case they break.” In another clever scene that shows the film’s absurdist thrust, the four meet for what’s allegedly going to be a beachhouse orgy. They mock the ways of adults by dressing like their parents and exchanging pompous pleasantries: “Yes, the weather’s unbearable.”
Dani’s growing love for Nico, and Nico’s increasingly inability to return it in kind, opens the way for an intriguing subplot, a gay family friend’s infatuation with Dani. There are a few other threads here, but the focus is mostly on the ever-changing relationship between Nico and Dani, the ways they find of balancing their deep friendship with other impulses that threaten to separate them.
The film, shot in bright pastels, has a fresh, airy look well suited to a summer escapade in a seaside town. Ultimately, though, it’s the actors who carry the day. Fernando Ramallo beautifully incarnates a troubled but ultimately strong young man who can’t help but true to his feelings no matter where they take him. Jordi Vilches, discovered by the director working as an acrobat in a small-town circus, is brilliantly deadpan as Nico. Commenting on the necessity of finding two stars with the proper chemistry, the director said, “I was thinking of Redford and Newman, Lemmon and Matthau, Laurel and Hardy, or Delon and Belmondo.” But no such comparisons, even sarcastic ones, are necessary. Ramallo and Vilches – and the film – deliver.