For those of us sick and tired of the way high school is portrayed in mainstream film and television—the 30-year-old supermodels playing teenagers, the contrived situations that always revolve around sex, the unbelievable coming-of-age feats resulting in nerdish triumph over jock-ocracy and unfairness—a change seems to be in order. Adolescence portrayed in popular culture consistently overemphasizes the transitory fashions and crude humor that only reiterate just how vacuous the majority was to many of us in those early years. Luckily, that change came this year in form of Napoleon Dynamite, the charming and eccentric debut by 24-year-old Brigham Young University film grad Jared Hess.
The titular hero of this delightful tale of oddities is a slack-jawed, gangly oaf with lazy eyes, frizzy hair and hitched-up pants who expounds upon the virtues of the Loch Ness Monster and doodles flatulent unicorns in his notebook. To call Napoleon a nerd would be a staggering understatement, and the movie that bears his name is a chronicle of his small-time trials and tribulations.
Set in bucolic Preston, Idaho, a town that civilization seemingly forgot, Napoleon (Jon Heder) lives a meager existence augmented by his bizarre fantasies. He lives with his grandmother, a feisty lady who cherishes her pet llama, and his waiflike 90-lb. brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) who, if it’s possible, is an even bigger goober than Napoleon. While 32-year-old Kip scours internet chat rooms for babes at home, Napoleon goes through the motions at school. Harangued by the usual louts, he spends much of his time in a zany imaginary world or exiled to a solitary game of tetherball during P.E. class. When Pedro, an equally awkward new student who’s just immigrated from Mexico, enters the picture, the chance for actual friendship is kindled. And contact with the quiet Deb (Tina Majorino), a cute but gauche girl who yearns to sell gaudy trinkets and attempts amateur glamour photography, could provide Napoleon with romance as well.
As our hero begins his halting, uncomfortable friendships, trouble arises at home. Grandma breaks her coccyx in a dune buggy accident (Ha!), and Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) moves in to take care of the two dweebs. Rico, a sleazy and rather sad character, sells crappy Tupperware and herbal enhancements out of his Dodge van, and is fanatically obsessed with his glory days as a high school quarterback. He promptly attempts to bully Napoleon and derail his newfound friendships.
This film is, by and large, a comedic exploration of caricatures and high-school nerdiness. In fact, Napoleon Dynamite manages to capture the essence of the nerd better than any film in recent memory. It’s not about the clumsiness or eccentricities, hilarious as they are, but rather the fact that, for better or worse, Napoleon is completely oblivious to just how out of sync he is with his peers. When a bystander asks Napoleon what he’s going to do today, he petulantly responds: “Whatever I feel like doing! GOSH!!!”. And Jon Heder’s remarkably brisk and nuanced delivery gives the film its edge of legitimacy.
But if Heder makes it believable, it’s director Hess who makes the film a real accomplishment. Gathering together incalculable influences, Hess supplements an already winning comedy with artistic sophistication. Combining the deadpan humor of Jim Jarmusch with the expositional nonchalance of Wes Anderson, the film works as a character study that’s so bent on accepting misfits that it doesn’t commit the sin of compromising their uniqueness. The completely indeterminate time in which the movie is set also helps to expand its accessibility; 90s technology combines with 80s popular culture amid a backdrop of 70s faux-fashion to create a microcosm of the American high school experience.
Some of the film’s most bitter critics suggest that the characters are merely sight gags whose sole purpose is to appear ridiculous and be mocked by the audience. Such criticism is a perfunctory glance that avoids the movie’s dramatic subtext. Napoleon is who he is, unapologetically. And, as is confirmed when an audience of Napoleon’s classmates stand and applaud him, the message is clear: Embrace diversity; welcome eccentricity. Finally, Napoleon Dynamite’s contemporaries appreciate their resident nerd. Shouldn’t you?
Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.
Napoleon Dynamite / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()