Napoleon Dynamite

Quirky little oddball of a film. Amusingly minimalist leftfield character piece, for want of a better term.

Released in 2004, certified UK-PG. Reviewed on 20 Jan 2005 by Scott Morris
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Idaho. In the absence of my own private one, we'll have to share in the small town ambience that Napoleon Dynamite brings. Nothing to do with some disastrous explosive / French dictator fusion, this tells us something of the life of the titular teenager Napoleon (Jon Heder), a high school kid for whom the word 'gangly' seems to have been invented to describe.

While his grandmother is recovering after a dune buggy accident he and elder brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) are looked after, to stretch the term by Uncle Rico (Jon Gries). While Rico and Kip busy themselves earning a little cash by selling tupperware, Napoleon trundles on through school life with a near permanent sense of exasperation. Suffering what would be called bullying were it having any sort of effect on his psyche, he's enlisted by the school principle to show new kid Pedro (Efren Ramirez) the ropes.

The two become friends in suitably minimalist fashion, with Pedro eventually running for class president against the school's alpha female Summer and the resident jocks. Two love threads run throughout, Kip with his chatroom hookup Lafawnduh and an undercurrent of a love triangle between Napoleon, Pedro and amateur glamour photographer Deb (Tina Majorino). Rico's still too stuck in the past for such considerations, replaying his brush with big-time football in his mind with a commendable obsession.

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I'm frustrated. I've reduced one of the most distinctive and, well, quirky (not a term I like using in a positive sense but it fits here like a glove) movies of the last year sound like a production line teen comedy. It quite clearly isn't. At times it's like a series of non-sequiturs rather than a film, with incidents that serve little or no purpose in the scheme of things apart from to amuse. Witness Napoleon's introduction, dangling an action figure from a bus window for some impromptu G.I. Joe stuntwork on the basis that it's what he feels like doing.

More than almost any other genre comedies focusing on teenagers (of which this is one, but calling it a 'teen comedy' suggests a target audience that doesn't quite fit) follow regimented rules. The unassuming hero will have his worth questioned by whoever the ruling caste of the school happen to be, question their own worth, get in some scrapes, get their self belief back and gain acceptance of their peers through this. Which is nice, and may even have happened to someone once, at some point. Can't think of a single similar incident that anyone I know of could claim experience of. Or hearing tangentially of any such exploits. Not that we're necessarily looking for gritty realism here, but with such an established, near ubiquitous structure you'd think we must have seen something of it.

Napoleon Dynamite isn't exactly a hard hitting documentary either, but it's refreshing to see a character that won't even think about changing his behaviour. I was going to say 'compromising his ideals', but in the first case that sounds horribly pretentious and secondly couldn't really be backed up with paperwork. Napoleon never seems to divulge his ideals, and seeing as I can't particularly remember having any to speak of at his age I can't hold that against him. He certainly sticks to his behavioural patterns, even if it is casual compulsive lying. Anyway, the fact that he happily just plows his own furrow until everyone happens to accept him rather without the navelgazing to soft rock sequences that plague tripe like What a Girl Wants makes for a welcome change of narrative. Napoleon isn't even considering acceptance, let alone seeking it. It's only after watching does the movie's tagline about being out to prove that he has nothing to prove make some sort of sense.

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It's Jon Heder who makes the movie work, by force of a very odd charisma and personality. A compulsive liar and all round eccentric isn't typical hero material and it's a delicate balancing act for the film to manage, as it could easily have ended up being annoyingly strange than charmingly unusual. However Heder and director Jared Hess have pulled it off, aided by solid support from Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez and Tina Majorino. Creating an ensemble of memorable characters depite very few of them waxing lyrical at any point, Hess captures the awkwardness of teenage years in a way few others have, and made a deeply amusing, entertaining film into the bargain.

What I'm floundering around ineptly trying to convey is that Napoleon Dynamite is a very funny, charming if slightly left-field comedy that's based more around subtle nuance and oddball characters than signposted sight gags or the eating of turds. Like many of the best jokes, you really have to have been there to appreciate it fully. In this case it means going to watching it, and I heartily suggest you do so. Trying to explain why Napoleon telling Deb that he's caught her a delicious bass is so amusing is something I'm not sure I can properly accomplish with words, or even with diagrams and bar charts. It's a restrained little number that seems to underplay everything it does, creating a lovely understated atmosphere that keeps sympathy with the characters and entertainment with the audiences.

I liked this a lot and there's a better than evens chance you will too, if you give it a chance. I might not be any use at explaining why I liked it, exactly, but that's not something you should hold against Napoleon Dynamite. One of the most individual, distinctive and beguiling films of recent months, it's well worth seeking out.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Jared Hess
Cast list:
Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite)
Jon Gries (Uncle Rico)
Aaron Ruell (Kip)
Efren Ramirez (Pedro)
Tina Majorino (Deb)
Diedrich Bader (Rex)
Sandra Martin (Grandma)