Is Iceland the coolest place on Earth? The Viking descendants of this remote island in the far North Atlantic would certainly like us to think so. Despite its barbarian origins, this country had a republican government as far back as the 9th century. In recent years, the success of musicians like Bjork and Sigur Ros have only burnished Reykjavik's image as the planet's hippest music town.
The accomplishments of this doughty nation are all the more remarkable when we consider that the country's entire population is about 270,000, half of which live in the nation's capital. But as a quietly comic and subtly devastating film from that mighty country shows, sometimes living in a place called "Iceland" is as bad as it sounds.
Noi, the eponymous anti-hero of Dagur Kari's debut feature, is one unfortunate Icelander who has to make do with life on the fringe of the island, in a tiny snowbound fishing community far from Reykjavik and even farther from anywhere else. He's also an albino, but this fact seems incidental, an excuse to shave his head and eyebrows, thus heightening his status as an alien in his own land.
Noi is the classic misfit, forced to live with his grandmother after being abandoned by his alcoholic father. He flounders at school, with teachers and counselors mistaking his eccentricity and loneliness for sloth and dysfunction. In one meeting with a school psychiatrist, the doctor sticks obstinately to the script ("Do you hate animals? How often do you masturbate?") while remaining completely oblivious to Noe's casual reordering of a Rubik's Cube during the interview.
In its deadpan style, Noi recalls such once-fashionable work from Jarmusch and Kaurismaki. But Kari, who was 29 when he made this film, transcends his elders' hipster posturing and digs into the desperation of Noi's existence. There are tender but frustrating moments of connection with a Kierkegaard-quoting bookstore owner, his beautiful daughter and other lost souls. But most impressively, Kari incorporates Noi's forbidding, frozen surrounding into his story, and into his fate.