The full title of "Noi," Dagur Kari's exquisitely deadpan teen-misfit movie, is "Noi Albinoi," or "Noi the Albino," and it's true that the bald, gangling hero (played by Tomas Lemarquis) resembles a bleached member of Blue Man Group. He's the most colorful person in his tiny Icelandic fishing village, though, and the smartest too, even if no one else sees it. As it would any adolescent in similar straits, this drives Noi slowly around the bend. The film takes the cliches of the coming-of-age genre and slows them down until they become new again. Call it "Rebel Without a Thaw."
"Noi" shares with the recent Swedish import "Kitchen Stories" and the films of Finland's Aki Kaurismaki a sense of very quiet mischief, as if actual jokes were a waste of thermal energy. The film's comic observations are rich, droll, and more than a little sad: Everyone in this isolated community seems beaten down by life. "Laugh or cry at the stupidity of the world; you will regret both," says Oskar (Hjalti Rognvaldsson), the town's shambling bookstore owner, reading from Kierkegaard. Then he throws the book in the trash. Even nihilism is too much work.
Noi's response is to live stubbornly according to his whims. He wakes up when he feels like it (although his grandmother shoots a rifle out the window if he's too long in bed) and attends school when he's in the mood. His father, Kiddi (Throstur Leo Gunnarsson), is a drunk and an Elvis fanatic -- not much of a role model there. Tall and somber, Noi still has a spark of rebellious scorn in his eyes that gets fanned into a brush fire by the arrival in town of Oskar's pretty young daughter, Iris (Elin Hansdottir).
Iris has returned from the city (Reykjavik, presumably) and taken a job at the local gas station; her response to this twist of fate is astonished disgust. Initially dismissing the love-struck Noi as the village idiot, Iris soon understands and appreciates him in a way no one else does. Hope is a dangerous thing when you're a teenager.
"Your lack of discipline and respect is appalling," Noi's stodgy headmaster tells him; this in reaction to the boy's most creative act of truancy. By that scene, we're firmly in Noi's corner -- he seems like a visiting alien not yet accustomed to this planet's obtuseness -- so his increasingly desperate actions from there on are both funny and quixotic.
An unexpected ending pulls the rug out from under character and audience alike; it feels like a cheat at first but deepens as you let the film steep.
"Noi" was filmed in the western fjords of Iceland -- the end of the world, really -- by cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek; the frozen landscape has a spectral widescreen beauty that seems to have sucked the spirit out of the people. The film is so recessive that at times it threatens to disappear into itself, but director Kari saves it with delicious images of absurdity and entrapment. To watch a lonely boy throw rocks at a rainbow is to see every adolescent who has ever seethed with nameless discontent.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and directed by: Dagur Kari
Starring: Tomas Lemarquis, Elin Hansdottir, Throstur Leo Gunnarsson
At: Kendall Square
Running time: 88 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (language, brief nudity)
In Icelandic, with subtitles