I admit to being pretty disenchanted with the indie-film scene. It’s become so enmeshed in its own formula of calculated quirkiness that it rarely shows any more originality than does the most heavily test-marketed Hollywood extravaganza — and sometimes less so. I’m equally over the indie-film snobbery that works on the belief that if a movie was made for $50,000, it’s automatically more valuable than one that was made for $50 million. And because of this, I’m automatically skeptical of the Next Big Thing to emerge from the land of the no-budget film, with everyone rushing in to applaud.
In the case of Napoleon Dynamite, I was also not overly enticed by the trailer. No, that’s an understatement: I thought it was absolutely dreadful (and still do). But upon seeing the film itself, I understand that the trailer couldn’t have been much else — there’s simply no way to give the flavor of this peculiar, oddly charming little film in a series of clips running two-and-a-half minutes. The flat monotone of the main character doesn’t lend itself to excerpts.
Yes, Napoleon Dynamite has some of that forced indie quirkiness, but it also possesses a certain wayward originality — or at least a mix of influences that seem original. The closest approximation I can come up with to describe the film is to ask you to imagine a Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tannenbaums) screenplay directed by John Waters.
Napoleon Dynamite is an outgrowth of a short film by director/co-writer Jared Hess; Peluca, which also starred Jon Heder, had a similar story — and a nine-minute running time. (The Internet Movie Database review of Peluca celebrates the little film’s greatness, but comes from someone from Provo, Utah — perhaps one of Hess’ friends from his old alma mater, Brigham Young University? No matter.)
Hess’ other previous credits are all as assistant cameraman for religious four-wallers — mostly for the Mormon church, but also, oddly, for the Billy Graham production The Climb. And while Napolean Dynamite marks his first shot at a feature of his own, it owes nothing to his four-waller background. And, more often than not, it scores.
I have no idea what Hess’ actual religious beliefs might be; the only probable vestige of his background in the film is his treating door-to-door sales as a viable way of making a living (these days, about the only thing that’s sold door-to-door is religion). In the world of Napoleon Dynamite, the occupation seems perfectly believable, especially since it’s plied by characters whose grasp on reality is tenuous at best.
Working from a screenplay co-authored by wife Jerusha, Hess has fabricated something both less and more than a story. There’s not much of a conventional narrative here; in its place is a freakish kind of alternate world recognizable as being somehow akin to — but hardly the same as — the one we inhabit.
The setting is Preston, Idaho — a place that seems to belong to no specific time, and yet to every time. There is indeed a real Preston (population 4,000), and the film was shot there. But Hess’ take on the place is along the lines of David Lynch’s vision of our own state’s Lumberton in Blue Velvet. We get not the town, per se, but an impression of it. The near-brilliance of Hess’ perception comes from his not allowing his characters to behave — or even understand — that they exist in a backwards backwater; they think they’re modern and normal, and just the same as the rest of the world.
One of Preston’s least glorious residents is ueber-nerd Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), the film’s central character. He’s strange — gawky, awkward, yet peculiarly belligerent. Considering he lives with his ATV-riding, pet-llama-keeping grandmother (Sandy Martin) and his nebbishy chatroom-lothario brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), it’s surprising that Napoleon isn’t even more of a social disaster.
The plot — such as it is — is set in motion when Grandma breaks her coccyx in an ATV accident, allowing the brothers’ no-account Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) to descend upon the household as their self-appointed guardian during her hospital stay. It’s a not unreasonable move on the part of a man who appears to otherwise live out of his van.
Uncle Rico is one of the film’s more perversely fascinating characters. He actually is stuck in time — 1982 to be exact, the year in which he peaked (as a high-school football player), and after which it all went downhill for him. He spends his time videotaping himself throwing a football, being generally disagreeable and selling a variant on Tupperware door-to-door (at least until he switches to peddling an herbal breast-enhancement treatment). At the same time, he’s not much more out there than is Kip, who has met the love of his life, LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery), in an online chatroom, and is bringing her to Preston.
In the midst of these tangents, we find Napoleon becoming enamored of the quirky Deb (Tina Majorino) and making friends with Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a new student recently arrived from Mexico; Pedro is, if anything, even more awkward than Napoleon. It’s all exaggerated, yes, but it’s also all grounded in the recognizably real. Best of all, most of it is very funny, and in a way that really stays with you. And in the end, Napoleon emerges as the poster child for the nerd in all of us in this sly and charming movie.
By the way: You’ll want to sit through the end credits, since they’re followed by a fairly lengthy scene that didn’t make the final cut of the body of the film.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke