[15 June 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Napoleon Dynamite trades in icons. It is not a movie about eccentrics, or weirdoes wandering around Idaho exhibiting their idiosyncratic peculiarities. Instead, this is a portrait of everyday people painted without the meddling mainstream filters of a typical Hollywood movie. What we get in every frame of this minor masterpiece is a completely unvarnished look at individuals for whom the routine and rut of their daily lives has come to draw and define them. They in turn become mirrors to cultural changes and trends, locked in to those they like, completely ignorant of others that many savor and enjoy.
Yet this is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the film. Many feel that Napoleon (Jon Heder in a career defining performance) and his pals represent archetypes; as if they are the standard high school clichés cleansed of all irony and nostalgia and simply presented as symbols of those freakish formative years. Even the storyline seems reminiscent of movies past (Napoleon helps his new friend run for Student Body President). But if you listen closely to co-writer/director Jared Hess on his commentary track for the newly released Napoleon Dynamite: Like the Best Special Edition Ever DVD, you clearly see that he never intended his movie to represent the epitome of any experience. This is just the way things were when he grew up. Everything in the movie happened to him, or someone in his family, from the opening action figure gag to the final illustration of tetherball skills.
Granted, Napoleon Dynamite appears to be the kind of cult comedy that trades in fringe element entities to get its laughs. How else would you explain Napoleon’s uber-dork brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), his stuck in the ‘80s Uncle Rico (John Gries), the fragile little Deb (Tina Majorino) who offers glamour shots and self-made handicrafts, or his hound dog Hispanic pal Pedro (Efren Ramirez). When viewed without the benefit of the dialogue or the narrative, the movie does feel like a collection of caricatures in search of a spoof to support.
But what Hess and his wife/co-writer Jerusha do here is something far subtler. They use the differing dimensions between the characters; Napoleon’s arrogant exasperation and Kip’s craven cool in support of a typical sibling rivalry. Had they been a standard ‘big brother/little brother’ pairing, each one carrying a certain amount of promise and potency, we’d be bored silly. But Napoleon Dynamite derives almost all its pleasures by placing these compelling icons into real life situations, and then using their inherent uniqueness to get us looking at life in a different way. When Napoleon and Kip slap fight, or when they argue over who is the more industrious, the scenario is rather ordinary. But when the battle is between two infantile oddballs with less than stellar abilities, the situation becomes hilarious.
Such a joking juxtaposition happens often in Napoleon Dynamite. It is one of the few films that understands the possibilities in such comic concurrences. Had Pedro been viewed as a fun-loving Latino instead of a lost little boy with whispy moustache serving his imagined machismo, he’d be a horrible foil for Napoleon. But with his zombified zest for life, this Mexican dreamer complements Napoleon’s equally insular worldview with stunning results. All throughout the movie we can see these clever combinations - jock vs. nerd, teacher vs. student, child vs. authority. But at some levels, it goes even deeper than this. For Hess, Napoleon represents the formation of self-image; that awkward stage in everyone’s teens where we try out our different ideals in order to finally settle on the ones that will carry us through adulthood. In essence, the main theme of the film is the juxtaposition between who we are now, and what we will become. It’s those moments of casual consideration, where the future farmer (or whatever) leaps out of Napoleon’s glorified geekdom, that a great deal of the film’s humor, and humanity, is gleaned.
It’s no surprise then that the movie struck such a universal chord. While Hess does trade in typical school scenarios (the bully begging for lunch money, the pre-packaged plainness of the cafeteria and its food) he does not wallow in them. This is not an attempt to recapture a time or a place ala Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. No, as said before, Hess is not aiming for nostalgia. Rather, he wants acknowledgement. And the cult-like craziness that followed the film’s release proves his effectiveness in this regard. The new, two disc DVD presents a collection of these cultural references, from the boy who gave a secret “chicken talons” shout out to pals while onstage at the National Spelling Bee to the Idaho State Fair ads that traded on Napoleon and Pedro as symbols of dweeb cool.
Sure, there’s stuff missing from this otherwise excellent digital overview. Actor Jon Heder appeared on David Letterman to read a top 10 list of Signs You Are Not the Most Popular Guy in High School, and the band Gnarls Barkley consistently reference the Napoleon/Pedro pairing. But amongst the Behind the Scenes documentaries and looks at how the film impacted the actors, we learn that Napoleon Dynamite wasn’t trying to be a closed experience. It just turned into a private pleasure for a great many members of the audience.
That’s because the only universal truth the movie trades in is the notion of being misunderstood. Every single member of the Dynamite extended family is misconstrued. Uncle Rico just wants to relive his glory days as a high school quarterback, while Kip is lost in cyberspace, chatting with women who may, or may not be, the real deal. Grandma (Sandy Martin) is seen as a spiteful old biddy, but carries inside herself a real daredevil quality. Similarly, Deb appears sad and distant, but she has a great grasp of beauty, and a sensational skill with handmade keychains.
And then there’s Napoleon himself. At first, he seems to lack any of the “skills” he’s convinced will land him a girl. While he can determine the flaw in cow’s milk with just a small sampling, his pen and ink drawings are dark and disturbing. But in the movie’s climactic moment, when Napoleon steps out from the shadows of the school population to do a triumphant dance of deliverance, we see the truth. Sure, his moves are rather sloppy, and the overall effect is as hilarious as it is heartfelt, but the sequence proves that although he often seems self-centered and angry, Napoleon will definitely help out those he calls his friends. As a result, he truly does succeed.
Interspersed between the defining moments are casual observations of popular kid attitude (Haylie Duff and Trevor Snarr are a poster pair for the cool white couple) and unabated determination. Kip’s cage fighter dream is not deterred by what Napoleon calls “the worst reflexes on a human being, ever.” It’s the $300 fee to the martial arts school that stops him… temporarily. Pedro’s pursuit of Duff’s Summer Wheatley is viewed as doomed by everyone except the wannabe Latin lover. His eventual rejection doesn’t faze him. After all, he always has a back up plan. Even Napoleon perseveres in the face of bullying, rejection, and the constant invasion of his personal space. And it’s to Hess and Heder’s credit that every obstacle, every defeat, seems to further shape and define Napoleon. At the start of the film he is a walking, talking set of insecurities. By the end, his bond with Pedro and their adventures in school politics has provided a window into a world beyond his dungeons and dragons periphery.
This is the film’s other undeniable link to everyone’s life experience. Napoleon Dynamite argues not only for the experience of being misunderstood, but also the gradual acceptance of knowing one is misunderstood. Not everyone can be the star sports figure, or the valedictorian. For every standout in a group there’s a dozen middling to mediocre members. By offering Napoleon, Pedro, Deb, and Kip as real reflections of who they are, without the sugarcoating of Tinsel Town slickness or overdone Indie irony, we see that being the outcast is a lot more magical than dating the head cheerleader. We learn that life on the fringes of any social order has its goofy greatness. Instead of being depressed that we’re not the most popular kid in class, we should celebrate our state as individual icons. We all grew up as the shadow to some other shining light. Napoleon Dynamite argues that there’s nothing wrong with being an outsider. It’s the desire to conform that truly labels you a loser.