It’s the beginning of summer and we’re in a seaside resort. It could be Myrtle Beach or Topsail, but this beach town happens to be on the northeastern coast of Spain. For teenagers like Nico and Dani, the best time of the year has arrived: summer vacation. Better yet, Dani’s parents have just left on a trip to Egypt (dad’s an academic), leaving Dani in charge of their bright, gorgeous, pool-equipped house. Nico, Dani’s best friend for years, arrives from Barcelona the same day his folks set off for Africa.
You can almost taste the sense of freedom Dani feels as he wheels a second bicycle alongside his own, riding to the station to meet Nico’s train. The boys have an endless expanse of good times ahead: unhurried days of swimming, hunting rabbits, fishing by the port, and riding their bikes all over town and into the hills beyond. Who knows, they might even find some time for remedying that burdensome adolescent condition known as virginity.
Nico and Dani, the second feature by Spanish writer-director Cesc Gay, is one of those rare films that seems note-perfect from first to last. To be sure, its basic premise couldn’t be more familiar. If anything, the teenage coming-of-age film, complete with sexual awakening, has been treated so often by European filmmakers that one tends to suspect that nothing new could possibly be done with it. In the case of Nico and Dani, what’s so pleasing isn’t really a matter of novelty, but a matter of some very subtle and penetrating human insight, and execution that’s amazingly close to flawless. In its acting, cinematography, writing and direction, this bright and endlessly good-humored Spanish gem is easily one of the year’s best movies.
Given all that, does it matter that it’s a gay film? Or maybe that question should be: Nico and Dani may come billed as a gay film, but is it really? And for that matter: These days, in the rarefied precincts of the art cinema, and in the mainstream beyond, what the heck is a “gay film”?
I have one answer to the latter question. A gay film categorically is not the opposite of a straight film. That’s because there’s no such thing as a straight film. (Admit it. You’ve never heard anyone yell, “Hey, gang, there’s a heterosexual film playing at the Varsity! Let’s go!”) No, a movie gets categorized as gay due to one of two things, or both–its contents; or the way it’s marketed. In examining Nico and Dani, let me discuss its contents first, because in looking at those, we encounter a film which arguably deserves to be left free of all reductive labels.
The first thing to note about the movie’s two protagonists is that they’re the kinds of teenage guys who are perfectly believable as close friends. Which is to say that they don’t have too much in common, they just don’t realize that yet. Dani (Fernando Ramallo), the blond one, is preciously writing a novel. Nico (Jordi Vilches), a dark-haired class-clown type with a string-bean frame and a gawky stare, aspires to be a motorcycle mechanic. You look at them and think that when they’re grown up they’ll still be friends, but only because they were best friends when they were young. At age 30, they’ll be moving in such different circles that they would never meet. And no doubt, the separate paths their lives take begin to diverge during the summer the film chronicles.
Up until this year, it appears, girls have been more an alluring abstraction than a real possibility. As for sex, Nico and Dani seem to have a tradition of mutual masturbation (had it been submitted to the U.S. ratings board, these frank but inexplicit scenes would probably have earned the film an R rating), but this is kids’ stuff, really, without necessarily implying that either boy is necessarily into guys–much less his own best friend.
In other words, things have been left vague until now, and why not? Adolescence is a great time for postponing crucial decisions and avoiding the obnoxious labels that adulthood inevitably brings. But such matters have a way of clarifying themselves naturally, do they not? This summer, Nico boasts to Dani that his Adam’s apple has become newly protuberant, which, he says, women will recognize as a sure sign of his, ahem, virility. When Dani, after rolling his eyes, replies that, well, his feet have grown, Nico scoffs that women don’t look at a guy’s feet.
Another sign of nature’s progress: There are a couple of girls around who apparently were around in previous summers, but now they seem somehow important. Nico and Dani are setting off on a fishing expedition when they run into Elena (Marieta Orozco) and her shy cousin Berta (Esther Nubiola), who invite them to have a drink. Nico tells Dani that fishing can wait. They go into a bar and Dani orders a cognac. What brand, the bartender asks. “Bailey’s,” Dani suavely replies. Later that night, Nico will tell Dani that ordering Bailey’s for cognac is really stupid. But at the time it doesn’t matter, because this is where Nico and Dani start hanging out with Elena and Berta. (Incidentally, you may have just noticed that the film takes place in a far-off and bizarrely sane place called Europe, where teenagers learn to drink in public, among adults, rather than being obliged to binge in the basements of fraternity houses.)
Once Nico notices these girls, he really notices them–the sophisticated, self-aware Elena especially. And this in turn leads to his determination to lose his virginity, a campaign in which, considering the presence of Berta, he heartily hopes Dani will join him. But this challenge forces a realization upon Dani: Rather than Berta, or Elena, he’s really attracted to Nico. At first, this is far more upsetting than clarifying. He doesn’t know what to do about it, or exactly what it means. Is he in love with his pal? Or is he attracted to guys and this is life’s way of making him face that?
There are many things to admire about Nico and Dani, but the quality that struck me most was its way of eluding our expectations at every turn. The film boasts some pricelessly funny scenes, such as one in which Nico and Dani throw a fancy dinner for the two girls with the hope of seducing them. In this passage and in many others, you think you know where things are headed–in an American movie, you surely would–but then the action slips off into another direction, leaving you to reflect how often life itself fails to follow the patterns we set for it.
In other words, the film has a much cannier and more nuanced grasp of human behavior–in which sexuality is only one component–than most comparable movies. If such perceptiveness makes it a “gay film,” then that de facto genre would be distinguished indeed. But of course it doesn’t. Currently “gay film” encompasses the many, many movies that end up displayed in gay and lesbian film festivals, which now are more legion than Krispy Kreme franchises. That is, these films are marketed and exhibited in a certain fashion, for a certain audience. Of these, a few prove to be of such exceptional quality or interest that they escape the “gay ghetto” of festivals and go into general circulation.
Nico and Dani is exceptional in that way, and in another way too. I’ve written before about what I call the Mediterranean gay film and its great differences from its North European/American counterpart. In the latter, generally, sexuality is divided into strict, mutually exclusive camps (I almost wrote “concentration camps”) and the focus is on the gay male’s desire, which is seen as wholly apart from the desire of other males and women. In the Mediterranean film, sexual identity is much more fluid and the desire of women is not depicted as alien or wholly threatening to the gay man, who, in fact, may not be all that committed to any particular “identity.”
We know that the Mediterranean lands were never afflicted by Puritanism, which, recognized or not, still informs the thinking and behavior of the most hedonistic and irreligious of American gay men, not to mention most of their straight brethren. Mediterranean gay films (which might more accurately be called bisexual, or polymorphously perverse) thus tend to strike us as a breath of fresh air, a bit of humane sanity on a subject that, in our perennially uptight and hysterical sexual culture, was formerly mired in moralistic hogwash and is now mired in politicized hogwash.
How reflective, though, is a film like Nico and Dani of current teenage experience? I would love to hear that question debated among teachers and counselors from Spain and the United States. I don’t pretend to have the answer myself, but my hunch is that it’s easier for Mediterranean kids to keep their sexuality fluid late into adolescence than it is for American kids. As the experience of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold suggests, within the past couple of decades a psychologically imposing culture of hypermasculinity has taken hold in American grade schools and high schools, with the result that “fag” and “queer” (the latter term should be retired by gay activists, since it will always be a taunt on playgrounds) are hurled at any kid whose demeanor is less overtly macho than that of Mike Tyson. Our kids are laboring under an understanding of sexuality that’s increasingly based on power, and therefore is arguably more oppressive than any that’s come before.
If Nico and Dani is a respite from such cultural woes, it’s also an accusation of them. In a saner America, it would not be called a gay film at all, but simply an excellent film about youth, friendship and summers at the beach.