A common cliché among coming-of-age dramas set in hardscrabble ghettos or backwater towns is the hero's desire to "get out," to escape the oppressive surroundings and begin life anew. But rarely has getting out presented the practical dilemma that it does for Tómas Lemarquis, the willfully eccentric ne'er-do-well in Dagur Kári's determinedly bleak comedy Nói. Stuck in a tiny village that even his fellow Icelanders would call remote, Lemarquis has to dig his way out of snowdrifts just to leave the house, and even then, he's on a fjord, flanked by fortress peaks and icy ocean waters. When he makes a desperate attempt to steal a car and speed off to some brighter destination, the gesture is at once absurd and heartbreaking: Where does this poor kid think he's going?
Before succumbing to an out-of-the-blue cataclysmic finish, Nói addresses Lemarquis' mopey narcissism with the gentle deadpan humanism of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, an unmistakable influence. A misfit among misfits, Lemarquis tends to demonstrate his superior intellect by steadfastly refusing to exercise it, painfully aware that it wouldn't do him much good anyway. Living alone with his curious grandmother, who wakes him with a shotgun blast and serves a blackish paste for breakfast, the 17-year-old usually skips school and holes up in a secret reading room underground. Things look up when he meets Elín Hansdóttir, a pretty filling-station attendant whose crushing ennui nearly equals his own.
The inherent pitfall of offbeat, minor-key quirkfests like Nói is that their characters can seem more quaint than real. While occasionally barely skirting cutesiness, Kári allows the punishing landscape to serve as ballast, instilling the action with a weighty sense of dread. Lemarquis' misadventures in high school—where he sleeps face down in class and tries to get another student to replace him with a tape recorder—earn the biggest laughs, but Kári doesn't allow Nói to get subsumed by whimsy. The best moments bind comedy with prevailing despair, such as when Lemarquis finds a temp job digging graves, haplessly pounding a pickax into the frozen ground. When his slumbering brain comes up with an innovative solution to soften the soil, the triumph rings more than a little hollow. Only in the final minutes, when Kári overreaches for ironic effect, does the film plumb too far into the darkness.