Napoleon Dynamite Stands Tall Among Indie Nerd Tales Thanks to its Star
In what Bizarro-World Schwab’s Drugstore did director Jared Hess find anti-Lana Turner Jon Heder? Six-plus-awkward-feet tall, with Botticelli lips open in perpetual mouth-breather stupefaction, eyes closed as if to hear more closely that different drummer, and spastic brass Brillo hair, he is either the most brilliant special-needs child ever put to film or the most sensitive actor of this or any other generation. As his character, Napoleon Dynamite, would put it, he has special skills.
That’s the bane of Napoleon’s rural Idaho high-school existence—his lack of the kind of skills that girls go for. “You know—nunchuck skiiiiiils . . . bow-hunting skiiiiiils . . . ,” he drones with heavy-lidded eyes to his friend-by-default Pedro (Efren Ramirez). Maybe it’s not the ability to kill wolverines with crossbows that the girls are after, but even the simpler stuff is too much to ask Napoleon. “Are you drinking 1 percent milk because you think you’re fat?” he asks a girl by way of conversation. “Because you’re not. You could drink whole milk if you wanted.” You see where he’s going.
There’s not much support in his home life either. After his bulldagger grandma (Sandy Martin) gets injured in a dune buggy accident, his sleazy Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) appoints himself caretaker of Napoleon and his only slightly less hopeless older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). When Napoleon doesn’t want to go along with Uncle Rico’s plastic-ware sales scheme, he attempts to make something of himself by drawing a picture of a popular pretty girl to impress her (no), making a fortune as a chicken rustler (no), and becoming a supersweet hip-hop dancer. In rural Idaho. The oldest kid to still take the cheese bus to school, Napoleon endures bullies, naysayers, needlers, and the social gulag of solo tetherball one torturous day after another, pinning his dreams on being somebody. Somebody with skills.
First-time feature director Hess aims his camera on a semidecrepit, semiverdant Middle America with a deadpan, flat-affect gaze that mirrors Napoleon’s oblivious worldview. Napoleon’s associates Pedro and Deb (Tina Majorino, projecting a fragile, grave sincerity that threatens to shatter into tears at any minute) occupy the same clueless, airtight bubble. His world is full of the ugly detritus of the late ’80s and early ’90s—you know, like your parents’ house, and all the stupid clothes you once wore. Of course Napoleon wears snakeskin workout pants and unicorn shirts and the same pair of moon boots everywhere. He thinks he looks cool. Didn’t you, when you were equally, laughably clueless about the gulf between the impression you’re making and the impression you think you’re making?
Which brings us again to Jon Heder and the stuporous eye of the storm he creates in the title role performance. Without Napoleon in all his slack-jawed, semiconscious, pathetically courageous splendor, the film would be a pretentious, phlegmatic snore instead of a wondrous, life-affirming lungful of clean air. More physically brave than some six-packed pretty-boy actors I can mention, Heder careens, swoops, and lurches his storky frame through screen space with the ferocity of a PowerPoint arrow, at one point belly-flopping on packed earth from atop an eight-foot-high chain-link fence with a devotion to craft that Buster Keaton would applaud. He finds the perfect note to play Napoleon, engendering from the audience equal parts pity, hilarity, frustration, and exhilaration with Napoleon’s myopic and ridiculous passions.
While comparisons with Todd Solondz’s skewed teenage purgatory Welcome to the Dollhouse are easy, that movie was about sadism and despair. Napoleon Dynamite is about tenacity and glee. Instead of the easily dubbed jingoist Hollywood monstrosities that fuel the Third World’s dim view of us, this is the kind of America audiences in New Delhi and Kandahar should see, full of Midwestern klutziness and wide green spaces and wildest dreams attained. It is life-affirming and triumphant, while still holding true to its self-consciously weird indie roots. Its off-kilter deadpan pays gentle homage to the values Americans hold dear—perseverance, independence, and innovation, no matter the obstacle. I’m sure the film board of Idaho is thrilled.