It’s charming. It’s hilarious. It is perhaps the most beautifully crafted, lovingly rendered portrait of extreme geekitude ever to grace the screen. It’s Napoleon Dynamite — the first feature film from 24-year-old Brigham Young University student Jared Hess — and, if there is any justice, it’s going to be huge.
Remember that kid who was always drawing mythical beasts in his notebooks? Whose hitched-high pants and tucked-in T-shirts merely served to attenuate his gangly limbs, locked in a single plane? Whose evasive, half-shut eyes complemented his permanently slacked jaw and perpetual wheeze? And who, with no apologies, panted over time machines advertised in the back of comic books and posted a sign on his bedroom door establishing “Pegasus Xing”? That’s Napoleon (Jon Heder), a teenager who has reached such Olympian heights of nerdishness that he’s oblivious to it, either as failure or achievement. Even as Napoleon is harangued and abused at school, tossed against lockers, and left, daily, to a solo game of tetherball, he reacts with righteous indignation, utterly unconvinced that he’s the problem. And for this — for his dignity in the face of scorn, for his unabashed himselfness — we love Napoleon Dynamite.
The movie loves him, too. In fact, it’s nothing less than a celebration of its central character — hardships, foibles, bad hair, and all. It takes place in Preston, Idaho, the hometown of director Hess (who co-wrote the film with his wife Jerusha), and it catalogues, with patience and art, the disappointments and victories (however small) in Napoleon’s life.
Napoleon lives with his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who at 32 has no occupation other than searching for his “soul mate” in Internet chat rooms, in the home of their feisty grandmother (Sandy Martin), owner of an equally feisty llama named Tina. When Grandma breaks her coccyx in a dune buggy accident (truly, it’s hilarious), Napoleon and Kip can hardly be entrusted to take care of themselves. So Grandma sends Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a sleazy salesman caught in the glory days of 1982, when even as a benched high school football player, he “could have gone pro.” As if born to the role of meddlesome caregiver, Rico immediately sets about establishing a Tupperware business, eating all of the family’s steak, and ruining Napoleon’s life.
Such as it is. In general, Napoleon wants little more than to be left at peace with his “ligers” (combination lion-tigers, “known for [their] skills in magic”), though, like any human, he craves connection. To that end, he’s in luck, as new student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) appears at school and accepts Napoleon’s halting friendship with nary a blink. (Short, perpetually sweating, and mustached, Pedro is Sancho Panza to Napoleon’s Don Quixote.) The two have an understated connection, to say the least: “So,” Napoleon mutters beneath his breath, “you and me are pretty much friends by now, right?” Unlike Napoleon, Pedro has a way with (or at least a strategy with regard to) girls: When he likes one, he bakes her a cake.
Napoleon can barely communicate with anyone, let alone girls. And when Deb, a shy student who braids limp lanyards and runs a home glamour-shot business, shows up on his doorstep, he’s confronted with the need to learn. At first, Deb tries to sell Napoleon a lanyard, and he makes the ultimate geek mistake of saying exactly what he means: “I already made like infinity of those in scout camp.” This, of course, is not what Deb needs to hear, and she runs away in shame.
Later, Napoleon makes it up to her, in his staccato, painfully awkward way. But she doesn’t mind. Like Napoleon, Deb is untroubled by appearances; instead, she seeks (and sees) inner beauty. Actress Tina Majorino plays Deb like a young Lili Taylor, all buttercup sweetness and light. You want to reach out and give her a big everything-will-be-okay hug — though of course she doesn’t need it. She already feels the love.
What a pleasure it is to watch a film that so adores its characters, and that allows them the space to be totally themselves. Though Napoleon and his friends often seem locked inside their bodies, unable to break out into authentic expression, they manage to get their points across. And whenever they do speak, or mumble, or drone, every utterance is authentic; their unbending earnestness is enough to melt even the iciest heart. When the slinky-smoove star of Napoleon’s instructional dance video asks him whether he’s ready to get his groove on, Napoleon, a boy any self-respecting groove has long since abandoned, says, “Yuuuus.” And then he does it. He totally gets his groove on.
Ultimately, there’s not much in the way of a plot here; if Napoleon Dynamite has a flaw, it’s the sense of loss one feels about two-thirds of the way through, when the tension has largely failed to mount. But there is so much compassion, wisdom, and comic insight that the film is hugely rewarding in any case. Deadpan irony is the rule, understatement is the lingua franca, and the result is an unceasingly accurate portrayal of real people whose quiet lives are touching and humanly grand. Napoleon, Pedro, Deb — even Kip and Uncle Rico: All of these folks dare to dream, and their dreams are beautiful.