Philip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Hoiner) are best friends. They're both aspiring novelists. And at the beginning of Reprise, they both stand, hesitant, on the street in front of a mailbox, and put their manuscripts in. And the camera follows their hopes and aspirations into the darkness, and the film rockets forward, a narrator detailing the reception of their novels and what that does to their lives, who finds acclaim and who does not, the setbacks and triumphs of each of their careers, with jump cuts and film clips and rambling elaborations and bizarre left-field concepts and rapid-fire narration piled one atop the other. And then we're back in the here-and-now, as Phillip and Erik stand in front of the postal box, looking slightly abashed, wondering what exactly it is they're supposed to do next. Maybe what we saw was a dream, or a lie; we're going to have to wait and see what happens next, just like they have to.

Directed by Joachim Trier, Reprise is one of the most brilliant, heartfelt, exciting and exuberant feature film debuts in recent memory, and works not just as a demonstration of Trier's substantial talents but also as a superbly-made collaboration. Trier co-wrote alongside Eskil Vogt, and the film's ensemble (including Lie, Klouman-Hoiner and Viktoria Winge as Phillip's gamine girlfriend Kari) is also superb, down to seemingly-minute supporting roles that are nonetheless perfectly cast, like Eindreide Eisvold's all-seeing but hardly certain dry tone as the narrator.
One of Reprise's many pleasures is how it pulls off grand inventions and narrative tricks that are clever and inventive, but never at the expense of the characters and the story; the flash-forwards and jump cuts are cool, and yet the film never becomes cold. And the film loops in a number of pop-culture references -- from Don DeLillo and Rain Man to Salinger and Ian Curtis -- but they make the film feel more lived-in, not simply clever and hollow. Yes, as a jogger runs into view wearing a Joy Division shirt, Philip and Erik and their friends mock him for being old and lame and having fallen from hipness, watching him pass in slow motion, but at the same time they also know that there's a fairly certain chance that they, too, will wind up on the same path. (Reprise is very much about boys becoming men who are still kind of boys; if you can't sympathize, you're either very fortunate or completely lacking self-awareness.) And while Erik and Phillip both have dreams of wild success that's tempered by a certain self-awareness -- Erik notes half jokingly and half hopingly of the writer's life he and Phillip aspire to how "We're supposed to write and drink and hang out with friends and, if we feel the need, have fetishistic sex with prostitutes ..." -- they also know it's not quite that simple, either.

But Reprise isn't just about broad strokes and self-aware cynicism. Phillip falls into depression, while Erik has trouble getting his book accepted. Phillip retreats into his memories of how things were with Kari, and later tries to re-create the Paris trip that began their relationship last time -- with predictable, yet heartbreaking, results in a beautiful and sensitive sequence of scenes. There's a moment in Reprise where Phillip finds a brief accidental memento of his time with Kari in his things -- a small thing, a random thing, not intentionally left -- but it strikes him to his core, and Trier's choices and ideas make the scene cut at your heart. And Reprise also captures depression, not just on the level of Lie's performance, but with the rhythms and the shots of the film. Reprise is simultaneously bold and tender, audacious and sensitive.

And it also captures the bonehead bonding of 20-year old men. Erik is not exactly committed to his girlfriend (the film conveys his ambivalence by not even showing her face in early scenes -- it's a directorial touch that's funny, cruel and sad). His pals are the sort of smart-dumb young men who turn Nietzsche into pick-up advice: "Sometimes, you have to be Zarathustra; be mean." Trier and Vogt also have a fine eye for precisely crafting embarrassing moments for Erik, whether it's flashing back to his mom giving him a sensitive, squirm-inducing lecture about his web surfing for porn in his youth or a carefully-planned meeting with his literary idol that swiftly becomes mortifying.

The performances are also strong; while Lie and Klouman-Hoiner have acted before and hope to again, they both actually have careers outside of film. But their work here isn't simply the raw naturalism of non-professional actors; they deliver insightful, real performances here while still committing to Trier's broader inventions and formal ideas. Winge is also excellent; Kari is never just "the girl," and while the scenes between Kari and Phillip consciously evoke the exuberance and style of the French New Wave, they also feel real and tough as Kari struggles to deal with both her reasons for her feelings and Phillip's irrational depression.

But Reprise isn't just well-acted; Trier directs with a sure vision and real skill, and the film's visual symbols and style are rich and smart but never showy or distracting. Reprise made me consciously aware of the passage of time; it made me contemplate my own mid-20s, and what's happened in my own life since that time, not through simple nostalgia or easy references but by asking the kinds of questions real art asks of the audience: What do you want? How badly? And what are you prepared to do about the mistakes you've made along the way? Reprise is an early contender for my list of the best films of 2008 (which is ironic, as it was released in 2006 in Norway); it's not just a touching, funny brilliantly shot film in and of itself, but it also marks the arrival of a real talent to watch.