Napoleon Dynamite was a sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. After playing very successfully in art houses for a few months, it is now rolling out nationwide, complete with an additional 5-minute scene added for the wide release. (However, to see the extra scene, you have to sit through the entire end credits, the blue MPAA logo, and about four seconds of total blackness.)
Jon Heder plays the title character, a dorky high school student in Idaho. Napoleon is tall and lanky, with an unruly “hair helmet” and the type of oversized glasses that went out of style at least a decade ago. He’s the kind of kid who is routinely shoved into lockers in the hallway at school. He is also prone to liking science-fiction and ugly iron-on T-shirts. Napoleon lies to make himself seem more well-adjusted than he really is; he will claim to have a girlfriend in another state and will insist that he has gone wolverine hunting with his uncle. No one believes him on either count, a fact he never seems to recognize. His conversation skills are often limited to one-word utterances like “idiot” and “duh.” One of the funniest scenes illustrates the character’s strange habits. During lunch, he places a handful of tater tots in his pants pocket for consumption later on.
Napoleon lives with his grandmother and his adult brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). Unlike Napoleon, who is at least vaguely aware that he’s not like everyone else, Kip is blissfully ignorant of his own fashion-challenged scrawniness. He spends his days talking in chat rooms and planning his improbable future as a cage fighter. When their grandmother lands in the hospital after an ATV accident, the boys’ Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) moves in to watch over them. He starts up a business with Kip in which they sell 24-piece sets of Tupperware. Kip uses the money to buy a bus ticket for his internet girlfriend.
There isn’t a lot of plot in Napoleon Dynamite; instead, this is one of those slice-of-life character studies in which we glimpse into the world these people inhabit. A lot goes on in their lives. We see Napoleon’s friendship with the laconic Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a new student from Mexico. Pedro doesn’t fit in too well either, but he plans to run for class president anyway. The competition is a pretty, vacuous cheerleader named Summer (Haylie Duff). Then there’s Deb (Tina Majorino), yet another misfit. She’s so out of touch that she still wears her hair in a pony tail - on the side. She and Napoleon would seem to be interested in each other, but maybe not. Napoleon turns to his friends when he thinks his brother and uncle are ruining his life, which is constantly. They embarrass him, which is probably easier to cope with than embarrassing himself.
There’s an interesting factor at play here. A lot of movies feature dorky characters who long to be accepted by the popular kids. In contrast, Napoleon seems to have as much contempt for his peers as they have for him. Never does he really express a desire to fit in. He almost seems to take a certain pleasure in his anti-social qualities. Just as the cool kids are irritated by his dorkiness, so is he irritated by their uniformity. It’s not jealousy or resentment; he just really doesn’t like the majority of kids in his school. That’s an extremely original approach to take. Many of the film’s laughs come from the way Napoleon so stubbornly refuses to adhere to the conventions of adolescence. Even when he gets a pity date for the school dance, he barely registers the fact that the girl skips out on him. Heartbreak would just be to foreign to him.
Napoleon Dynamite is a great comic creation, and Jon Heder deserves Oscar consideration for playing him. The actor totally gets inside this guy; never once do you feel like you’re watching a performance. This is especially impressive during some of the more painful moments in which Napoleon fails to register events that should be humiliating for him. At the same time, you feel an undeniable affection for the character. Sure, he’s dorky, and yes, there are times when his behavior is borderline obnoxious. But there’s something strangely admirable about his fierce individuality. He likes himself, even if his peers don’t.
For me, the joy of Napoleon Dynamite comes from seeing the misfits get a more honest treatment than they typically do. In a strange way, it's thrilling to see this kind of person get celebrated in a film. I have to admit: the character struck me as an amalgam of about two or three kids I went to high school with. I remember the qualities those kids shared with this movie’s hero: the terminal dorkiness, the natural agitation toward “normality,” and the surprising resiliency that seems totally unearned considering the circumstances. There was one boy at my school who looked not unlike Napoleon. He used to walk around challenging everybody else to a fight. My great-grandmother could have kicked this kid’s ass, but he just kept provoking people. Why? Who knows, but he did it with all sincerity, apparently getting some kind of inner reinforcement. Are there really Napoleon Dynamites out there? Yes, there are.
If there’s a message to be found in the film, that message would be that we all have skills of some kind. All we need is the right moment to reveal them. Our lives won’t necessarily change much, but we can shine nevertheless, and that alone is important. In the film’s climax, Napoleon delivers an ecstatically bizarre geek-dance that allows him a small moment of personal victory. At the end, he still doesn’t fit in, and he’s still a dork, but there’s a small glimmer of hero inside of him anyway. It was always there; it just needed the right opportunity to present itself. This is ultimately a braver, truer, and more honest message than most movies about teenagers can deliver. Here's to the misfits.
( 1/2 out of four)
Napoleon Dynamite is rated PG for thematic elements and language. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
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