Nico and Dani
dir. Gay
Opens Fri April 27
Cinema 21

Nico and Dani,which opens Friday at Cinema 21, can be safely classified as a Gay Film. As in director and co-writer Cesc Gay, that is. Pigeonholing this daring, sweet, coming-of-age film as a gay film, small 'g,' does it a disservice. Nico and Dani contains insights and humor that can appeal to audiences of any orientation, as long as they remember what it was like to be young and confused.

Set in an unnamed resort town on Spain's Mediterranean coast, Gay's second feature presents an initially idyllic look at what becomes an eventful summer. With his parents in Egypt, 16-year-old Dani (Fernando Ramallo) welcomes his best pal Nico (Jordi Vilches) to his luxurious beach house. Dani is blond, sensitive, and serious, an aspiring writer; Nico is dark-haired, quick-witted, and fun-loving; a bit of a huckster.

These two are extraordinarily close, engaging in a nightly ritual they call "Krampack," which was also the film's title in European release (apparently it was decided that American audiences like titles with pairs of names). "Krampack" is a form of mutual masturbation, each boy helping the other to get off, by hook or by crook--or, in this case, by hand or by mouth. These sex games are no different from those played by curious, pubescent folks of both genders, and they're presented as just such an innocent activity. American audiences, which can tend towards the prudish (in case you hadn't noticed), may nonetheless be shocked by the shame-free depiction of adolescent sexuality.

But back to our story. Beachcombing beckons for our heroes, and on the second day of Nico's visit, the pair meet Berta and Elena, a couple of sociable young ladies with whom they share some frolicsome afternoons. Nico, who has vowed to lose his virginity this summer, pursues Elena with the customary vigor of a horny heterosexual teen, but Dani is relatively unmoved by their new acquaintances. He finds that he vastly prefers spending time with Nico, ideally in some sort of Krampack situation.

As both boys explore their burgeoning sexuality, their friendship begins to suffer. Nico's had about enough of Krampack, and Dani gets jealous enough to plant falsehoods in the mind of Elena. Dani eventually seeks solace with an older, gay writer who's a friend of the family maid.

All this teenaged angst and Chuck & Buck-style unrequited affection might make Nico and Dani sound like a tough film to watch, when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth. A sunlit, oceanfront setting and fresh, spontaneous performances from a mostly young cast make it a generally lighthearted experience. The story has the feel of a fondly remembered, bittersweet time, with the hazy glow of memory smoothing out some of the rougher bits.

Gay, with co-writer Tomas Aragay, has done a remarkable job of opening up the stage play upon which the film is based. Initially confined to a single setting, and with older, college-aged characters, the action was wisely opened up to the glorious outdoors. Bringing Nico and Dani back to adolescence adds poignancy and believability to their relationship.

One interesting theory holds that same-sex experimenting is more common in Catholic countries, like Spain, where a girl's virginity is guarded somewhat more fervently than in heathen--I mean Protestant--lands. The idea is that there's less shame in practicing on your best buddy when it's the only practice you'll get. Despite the fact that this theory ignores Britain, it makes a smidgen of sense. Toss in a subtropical climate where bare skin is as common as blue sky, and the carnality in the air could almost be cut with a knife.