NOW PLAYING: Napoleon Dynamite

Posted: Monday, September 13, 2004




Nearly all Hollywood movies that deal with teenagers take place in one centralized location that I like to call "Hollywood High." You know the place, though the high school you attended was certainly a far cry. In Hollywood High, the volume, as it were, is turned way up. The nerds are nerdier, the jocks are crueler, and the girls are prettier. Those who smoke, drink and have sex do so in grand fashion, throwing block parties that put P. Diddy's to shame. Those who abstain wear their purity like a badge and travel in nice, clean packs. I bring this up because this week's film is indeed a teen movie, however, (shocker!) it does not take place at Hollywood High. Napoleon Dynamite is a film that breaks any number of conventions, the least of which is this lazy Hollywood standard. That is not to say that this movie takes place in your high school, either. Napoleon Dynamite really takes place somewhere in the Wes Anderson district - Melancholy High, maybe.

Napoleon Dynamite is a tough character to get your head around. Half-lidded eyes, exasperated sighs, and a chip on his shoulder the size of Idaho, our first impression of our hero is that perhaps he's a little slow. He has, as he so forlornly complains, no skills (no martial arts skills, mostly) though he does draw a mean Liger. But then, considering the family, maybe the kid's doing all right after all. Grandma is a swingin' single who loves llamas and dune buggies. Kip is a thirty-two-year-old kung fu enthusiast whose passionate online affair with chat-girlfriend LaFonduh makes getting a job oh, so inconvenient. And then there's Uncle Rico. 1982 was the year he almost became a football star in high school. The unfulfillment of that dream has left him with a deep and painful void, one that only door to door tupperware sales and herbal bust enhancement formulas can fill. If this sounds to you just a tad dysfunctional, don't worry, you're not alone. Napoleon would heartily agree, "Idiots!!" On the plus side, however, things are looking up for Napoleon. Debbie, the shy girl next door who runs her own Glamour Shots franchise has begun to take a shine to him, and, with the arrival of Pedro, recently moved from Mexico, friendship and popularity look to be right around the corner. When Pedro, who has skills with the ladies, decides to run for student body president against popular cheerleader Summer, we smell disaster on the wind, and it's up to Napoleon Dynamite to save the day.

I was nearly on the floor throughout. The simple sweetness and zaniness with which the story is told is brilliant, and the antics of our not-so-loveable hero are impossible not to like. Which is not to say that Napoleon himself is impossible not to like. In fact, he is distinctly unlikeable - for about the first fifteen minutes. And then, quite without your knowledge, you begin to accept him, root for him, and perhaps even understand him - a little. It's this same subtlety which makes the writing of this film so ingenious. By the end we expect to see a character who has grown, changed, been accepted, and we do. Only, after some thought, we realize that it's not Napoleon, who remains the angry, squinty young man we first meet, that changes, but us; the audience.

This film is a true rarity. It is bizarre, wacky, and completely hilarious. Yet it doesn't pander, stoop to mean-spiritedness, or resort to the mainstay of teen films today, toilet humor. An indie in every sense of the word, Napoleon Dynamite should be an example of what movies made outside of the studio system should be. So often anymore, independent films are either poorly conceived Tarantino rip-offs, or contrived sexual dramas about the trials of being gay or straight or both. Dynamite comes along and shows us that movies can tell a simple yet highly entertaining story, standing far outside of conventions without having to "push our buttons."

Napoleon Dynamite gives a rare insight into the life of a tragically true-life teenage phenomenon. The true geek, nerd, whatever is the kid who simply can't relate to the social conventions of "normal" society. They are either way above or way below their peers, and this lack of connection makes them sad, pure and simple. Napoleon may be an extreme, but he's not alone. I think what I liked about this film is that it validates those kids by saying, "Yeah, you're weird, but so what? Who isn't, in one way or another?" And in the end, as we wait for the nerd to become the popular kid, we suddenly realize that Napoleon isn't joining our group - we're joining his. Grade: A

Napoleon Dynamite is rated PG, a refreshingly appropriate rating that doesn't seem to have any of the stink of marketing on it. By the by, if you go, stay all the way through credits. I missed it, but my friend says it's "the funniest thing she's ever seen."

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