Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

2004-06-11 (Limited release)

Not long after American Splendor‘s Toby referred to himself enthusiastically as a “genuine ny-erd,” here comes a film all about such a nerd. Jon Heder plays the titular Napoleon Dynamite, a gangly adolescent who, when asked how his day is going, tends to respond, “It’s like the worst day of my life, what do you think?” Adrift in desolate yet picturesque Preston, Idaho, Napoleon has few friends, doodles a lot, and nurses what might be described as “hostility,” in a low-key, restless sort of way.

Napoleon is not the Hollywood version of a nerd. He’s neither a shrimpy everyman nor a future computer magnate (the typical mainstream movie nerd in the wake of Bill Gates). While high school is painful, it’s clear that Napoleon’s troubles will not necessarily be solved after graduation. His older brother, 30something Kip (Aaron Ruell), doesn’t seem to have many friends either, and spends most of his time in an online chatroom. Nerdiness is clearly in the Dynamite bloodstream.

I don’t know if it’s in Heder’s; I found it hard to tell whether or not he’s playing a version of himself, because his embodiment of Napoleon is so seamless. Heder’s physical details — mouth agape, low voice, frequent exhales of discomforted disgust — make for a terrifically funny and assured performance. Good thing; this plotless film’s success depends on him.

On Heder’s shoulders, it does succeed; Napoleon Dynamite is one of the best comedies of the year. It’s been dismissed by some as a condescending cartoon, a facile imitation of other high school nerd sagas, like Rushmore or Welcome to the Dollhouse. Actually, its elegant simplicity is more reminiscent of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World.

That film was originally a series of comic strips, and Dynamite is less like a cartoon than a comic — a good one, like Peanuts. The details of the kids’ awkwardness — Napoleon’s stretchy height and frizzy hair, the uneven teenaged mustache of his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez), the little-’80s-girl fashions of their friend Deb (former child star Tina Majorino) — suggest they haven’t grown into their bodies yet, like the bald, big-headed Charlie Brown, or the blanket-tugging Linus.

Similarly, the film’s interrelated blackout sketches recall Schulz’s three-panel gags about isolation and depression. Jared Hess’ basic trajectory has Napoleon befriending new student Pedro and helping him run for class president. Wes Anderson’s work is also influenced by Peanuts, and comparisons to Anderson, Todd Solondz, or the Coen brothers aren’t entirely inaccurate, inasmuch as idiosyncratic directors are often drawn to bizarre outsiders. But with that interest, it seems, filmmakers must endure accusations of smug superiority. Has there ever been an indie filmmaker not accused of hating his less conventionally attractive characters?

That said, bits involving Kip and their jockish Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), who wishes he could return to his glory years as a high school football star, indicate Hess may have created one misfit too many. But if Hess occasionally condescends to Kip or Rico, Napoleon is a different case. His friendships with Pedro and Deb are clumsy and understated, and, as such, they seem genuine. The three kids help each other out, not with big speeches at the prom or climactic confrontations, but with mediocre advice (on picking up girls) and moral support (Napoleon is sweetly dedicated to helping Pedro win the election).

What’s condescending about that? When Napoleon stumbles taking Pedro’s bike off a “sweet jump,” or stuffs lunchroom tater tots in his pocket for classroom snacking, I laugh not out of pity or superiority, but with affection. Hess celebrates nerdiness by refusing to analyze it, or treat it as a disease. This non-story of a misfit with few friends could be sad material, but it is directed with infectious good cheer.

Though some touches could be called needless (where are those parents, anyway? Does the narrative have to be so scattershot?), Napoleon Dynamite is interested in Napoleon as an individual, not his triumph over some straw jocks or cheerleaders. It’s a high school movie that didn’t leave me impatient for graduation.