Summer Romp

The Spanish deliver a charming yet complex rendition of beach-blanket romance

Ah, summer love! Most adults can hark back to the days of their youth, especially that first wild, unforgettable rush of sexuality. Many stories try to capture those breathless moments: the first kiss, the first love, the awakening of desire. Imagine a picture-perfect Spanish beach town, pleasant summer weather, and a flock of healthy teenagers searching for romance and adventure. This may not be your memory, but it may be your fantasy, and it's the setting for Krampack,a charming coming-of-age film from Cesc Gay that traces the close friendship of two teen boys who go looking for love and find it, if briefly, with each other.

Based on a hit Spanish play by Jordi Sanchez, Krampack traces a brief summer visit between two boys who have been pals since elementary school. Blond buff Dani has his parents' house to himself when they take off for a trip. He invites his pal, the dark and serious Nico, to stay while they are gone. The two friends set out for adventure, planning to experience sex while they are still seventeen years old. They soon meet up with two nubile girls, Elena and Berta, and plot their sexual strategy. But the boys are so excited, they take to masturbation to stay calm. Soon their routine moves into mutual masturbation (known as krampack) and then toward a full sexual relationship. Dani finds himself more and more attracted to Nico who, reluctant and increasingly unsettled, is much less involved emotionally and more interested in the girls. When Nico begins a romance with Elena, Dani tries to sabotage it, intent on keeping Nico for himself.

Thus begins an engaging tale that's both comedic and bittersweet. These teens, male and female, are quite uninhibited about sexuality but inexperienced at love, and their fumbling attempts to connect with one another are endearing. Nico can accept Dani's sexual advances, but when Dani expresses his emotions, Nico can't handle it. Nico is willing to experiment with sex, but he's not willing to try love. Furious at Nico's reticence, Dani accepts an older writer's invitation to a party at his home, intent on pursuing his newfound sexuality. Meanwhile Nico carries on his attempts to have a fling with Elena. But the boys' estrangement from each other haunts both Nico and Dani. Their sexual conflict can't obliterate their fondness for one another.

This sort of emotional confusion has long been the province of European filmmakers. The French -- from the old masters François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer to Andre Techine -- have made this subject their specialty. Stories of American teen sexuality, and especially gay sexuality, usually confront Puritanical repression and self-denial and focus on characters struggling to be themselves. But the Europeans, more culturally open to sexual variation, face different problems. This movie, as with many European films about sex, traces the attendant dangers of open sexuality -- the confusion of role and relationship. Nico and Dani can carry on a sexual relationship, but is it a prelude to hetero sex or is it preeminent? And is sex the point or a means to something deeper?

Krampack features some lovely colorful visuals and a bluesy rock score that add some kick to the romantic shenanigans. The young cast is outstanding, and director Gay wisely gives his actors all the room they need to create living, breathing characters. Fernando Ramalio gives a vigorous, touching performance as Dani in realistic, complex terms. Many aspects of his character are unsettling: There's a certain domineering darkness to him, and he's not above contemplating, or at one point committing, crimes of passion. But Krampack's chief asset is the goofy Jordi Vilches as Nico. Vilches, who makes his film debut here, is a former circus acrobat with clownish tendencies. His comedic timing is impeccable and is happily balanced by a touching vulnerability. With doleful eyes and a prominent schnoz planted on his long thin face, Vilches looks like a soulful Roberto Begnini, a lovable sad sack. These two actors conjure a real relationship that's filled with humanity.

The pair is ably abetted by Marieta Orozco as Nico's flame, the sly sensual Elena, who targets him for a one-night stand while her steady boyfriend is away. Esther Nubiola also is aptly cast as the doelike Berta, whose attraction to Dani brings her nothing but pain.

The winner of the Prix de Jeunesse at Cannes, Krampack (titled Nico and Dani in domestic release), won't satisfy all tastes. Its sexuality aside, the elegiac pacing and lack of dramatic high points give it a soft, dreamy quality that tends to drag in the middle. But its gentle story line and vivid visuals add a pleasurable veneer to the film. When Dani bids Nico farewell at the train station, it's a goodbye that's bittersweet and affecting. These boys genuinely love each other, and there's a palpable relief in their eyes that they have salvaged their affection after an emotional dance. Nico rides off toward his future on the train. For Dani this summer has just begun.

 
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