From Shakespeare (William) to Schwartz (Josh), popular dramatists can’t resist prying open the chest of tempestuous teenage emotions and fiddling around. (I even once saw some Egyptian hieroglyphics that told a story of young people not quite fitting in, feeling trapped and having parents who just don’t understand.)
In Luke Greenfield’s winning The Girl Next Door, the patient is Matthew Kidman (Emile Hirsch), a compulsive overachiever priming himself for a Georgetown scholarship that’s to be awarded to “the brightest leader of tomorrow.” And when it seems, early on in the film, as though Matthew is finally going to break with tradition, skip school for a day and head to the beach with all the “cool” kids, he quickly snaps out of the daydream and back into that overachiever’s prison of slide projectors, dog-eared textbooks and pop quizzes.
Taken from a very knowing script by Stuart Blumberg, David T. Wagner and Brent Goldberg, The Girl Next Door is about how even (or especially) the good kids — the sheltered, rule-obeying, emasculated apples of their parents’ eyes — yearn for a walk on the wild side. For Matthew, that comes in the form of the title character (Elisha Cuthbert), a beautiful blond who shows up, as if cast down from the heavens, in the window directly opposite his bedroom. When she catches him spying, he’s sure he’s blown what fraction of a chance he might have had with her. Instead, she merely shows up on his doorstep and asks him if he’d like to go for a ride. Her name is Danielle, and she’s house-sitting for her vacationing aunt. She also happens to be a famous porn star, though Matthew, so awestruck to be receiving her attentions, doesn’t realize it. Danielle is delighted, for the first time in a long time, to be in the company of a man who isn’t only interested in her boobies.
Eventually, The Girl Next Door becomes something of a screwball caper full of skinny-dipping excursions in strangers’ backyard pools, impromptu road trips to Las Vegas “adult film” conventions and a host of flamboyantly colorful characters. The most memorable of these, Danielle’s conniving ex-producer Kelly, is played by Timothy Olyphant with a foxiness that recalls the young Jack Nicholson. But what gives The Girl Next Door its unexpected weight is the depth of feeling both Hirsch (who was excellent in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and The Emperor’s Club) and Cuthbert (24) bring to their characterizations. Long before Matthew discovers the nature of Danielle’s vocation, just being on her arm makes him feel like a new person — it gives him that sense of being comfortable in his own skin he’s been searching for ever since his voice broke — and when Hirsch plays these scenes, he positively beams. Cuthbert has astonishing curves and dark, penetrating eyes that look straight through you, but can seem by turns as fragile and uncertain as an unfinished sculpture. It’s a star-making turn.
The Girl Next Door has some awkward passages — the Las Vegas scenes lack the same charm and zing of the rest, and there’s an expendable subplot about Matthew’s efforts to help a brilliant Cambodian teenager emigrate to America — but the movie’s big-hearted charm (and its unusual sexual frankness) carries it through. We’re a world away here from the crass (if not unenjoyable) slapstick antics of the American Pie series and closer to a sensitivity and nostalgia for all things awkwardly adolescent reminiscent of Cameron Crowe. (Greenfield and his music supervisors have even cooked up a terrific pop soundtrack to further the comparison.) The point of the film isn’t just that nice boys have raging libidos too, but that sex is a powerful currency that can shape a person’s emotional character. Curiously, before directing The Girl Next Door, Greenfield made a series of short films that ultimately landed him a gig directing Rob Schneider’s atrocious The Animal. Around that time, I’d heard that Greenfield himself regarded this debacle as a necessary evil on the road to making movies that “mattered” to him — which, I must admit, I regarded as exactly the sort of bullshit defense spouted all the time by Hollywood hacks-in-training. Now, though, Greenfield has gone and done what seems almost unthinkable by the standards of today’s young Hollywood: He’s gone and made one from the heart.
Far from The Girl Next Door’s Anytown, USA, Dagur Kári’s Nói uses its setting as a nearly perfect metaphor for the blizzard of disorienatation that is adolescence: It takes place on a remote Icelandic fjord where you have to shovel snow away from your bedroom window every morning just to see if it’s still snowing outside. Invariably, it is. But the story, however, is not so very different from the American one.
At film festivals, Kári’s film was known as Nói the Albino, and, indeed, its title character (played by French-Icelandic actor Tómas Lemarquis) is a tall, bald, beanpole-thin 17-year-old whose skin is so pale it seems like camouflage. (Though it’s not until the final moments of Nói that Kári’s full indebtedness to Charles Darwin becomes clear.) Nói’s home life is something of a mess. His Elvis-obsessed, taxi-driver dad is an inveterate alcoholic who cautions his son that “unwanted children don’t tell you they’re coming.” His grandmother has a habit of waking the perpetually late-for-school Nói by firing a shotgun blast. What makes Nói stand apart from the crowd, however, isn’t his spooky look (as it surely would be in the hands of a lesser filmmaker) or his weird family, but rather a sleek confidence that says he’s been there, seen it all, owns this go-nowhere town and is unquestionably destined for bigger things. No Georgetown candidate he, on those days when Nói does get around to showing up for class, he’s apt to fall asleep, or to turn in an exam book completely blank. The rest of the time, in a gesture worthy of Jeff Spicoli, he sends a tape recorder in his stead. Naturally, the school psychologist thinks he may be a genius.
Nói prefers to while away his days hanging out in a used bookshop — where he engages the eccentric proprietor in games of Mastermind in exchange for old porno magazines — or at the neighborhood gas station, where he gets spending cash by defrauding a slot machine and flirts with the sultry young brunette behind the counter. Her name is Iris (Elín Hansdóttir) and she just happens to be the daughter of the bookshop owner, taking a much-needed hiatus from “the big city” (presumably Reykjavik). For Nói, it’s love (or at least lust) at first sight, and he soon fantasizes about whisking Iris away to the exotic Polynesian paradise he’s only glimpsed through the stereoscopic eyelets of a 3-D Viewmaster.
Would that Nói’s road to happiness were so easy. By the time Kári’s film enters its home stretch, he finds himself expelled from school and trying his hand at a variety of odd jobs ranging from gravedigger (at which he’s terrible) to bank robber (at which he’s even worse). It’s all beautifully well-played by Lemarquis, whose looks could easily get him cast in a movie called Donnie Lighto, but whose wicked half-smile and loose-limbed physical ease make him a screen natural. And as many times as we may feel we’ve seen this story — maybe not in Iceland, but somewhere — Kári approaches the material with a sensibility closer to the deadpan grace of Aki Kaurismäki than the suburban melancholy of John Hughes. Kári’s Iceland is a place where traffic signals poke their heads out of snowbanks vast enough to cover an 18-wheeler, where an attempted bank heist can be dissuaded with a slap on the holdup man’s wrist and the threat of notifying his parents, and where just about everybody seems robbed of the ability to laugh at their absurd existence. Which is just as well, because in Nói, we laugh enough for both them and us.
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR | Directed by LUKE GREENFIELD | Written by STUART BLUMBERG, DAVID T. WAGNER and BRENT GOLDBERG; story by WAGNER and GOLDBERG | Produced by CHARLES GORDON, HARRY GITTES and MARC STERNBERG | Released by 20th Century Fox | Citywide
NÓI | Written and directed by DAGUR KÁRI Produced by PHILIPPE BOBER, KIM MAGNUSSON, SKÚLI FR. MALMQUIST, THORIR SNAER SIGURJÓNSSON | Released by Palm Pictures At Laemmle Sunset 5, Encino Town Center 5, Pasadena Playhouse 7
Can you get good pizza in Iceland? The question crossed my mind more than once as I sat down to interview Tómas Lemarquis, star of writer-director Dagur Kári’s Nói, during last November’s AFI Fest. After all, while Kári’s film does involve an unforgettable food-preparation scene, the meal of choice is the local delicacy of blood sausage. Our meeting place, seemingly light-years removed from Nói’s snowbanked fjord, was none other than the California Pizza Kitchen inside the Hollywood & Highland retail complex. Before I could ask Lemarquis about his movie, he had a few questions for me, about what he should order. I quickly scanned the menu to see if blood-sausage pizza had recently been added. Lemarquis ended up going with the BBQ Chicken.
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Though acting is a passion for Lemarquis, who studied at a Parisian drama school and cites James Bond as a dream role, his casting in Nói was somewhat by chance. “I wasn’t really cast in the film,” says the 26-year-old actor, who’s as pale and tall and disarmingly self-confident in person as he is onscreen. “The director, Dagur Kári, and I went to the same college, and he just asked me to do it. My father, who plays the French teacher in the movie, really was his French teacher at that college and really taught him to make mayonnaise. And my ex-girlfriend is his cousin. Also, I was in another feature where there were five directors — one of whom was Dagur Kári, though he was not directing me — and that’s where he decided he wanted to work with me. Dagur doesn’t like actors with a big ‘A,’ and so a lot of actors in the film are nonprofessionals or actors who also do other things. This minimal aspect to acting, more non-acting than acting, is something we talked about a lot.”
Of course, for the character of Nói, who admits in one scene to never having been on an airplane, even France feels as unreachable as the sandy Polynesian shores that dance through his daydreams. “Both Dagur and I are from Reykjavik, like 60 percent of the rest of the population. But Dagur didn’t want to make a really realistic portrait of an Icelandic town. We actually shot in two different towns, both of which live almost entirely off of fishing income. But how small it is and the claustrophobia and the fact that there are only three hours of light during the winter — those are realities.”
That absurd remoteness helps make Nói such a memorable, darkly comic addition to the coming-of-age canon, one that’s been embraced by audiences all around the world. “I think the story is universal and people relate to it,” Lemarquis says just as lunch arrives, followed by a bite into his first-ever designer California pizza. And how is it? “It’s good, but a little too sweet for my taste.”