Napoleon Dynamite

By Max Leonard

Ligers, llamas, and beaten egg as tasty drink: welcome to the world of Napoleon Dynamite, the ginger afro-ed, master doodling, eponymous star of the US indie sensation that took the London Film Festival by storm. Shot on a budget of $400,000, it's a sideways take on the high school movie that stages the familiar – but still interesting – revenge of the übernerd scenario. Full of surreal and unexpected touches, it manages to be strangely familiar yet simultaneously totally refreshing.

As with so many high school flicks, a plot summary sounds formulaic: Napoleon (Jon Heder) befriends new pupil Pedro (Efren Ramirez). Together they orchestrate a campaign to elect Pedro as class president running against school belle Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff), climaxing, almost inevitably in a dance-off in front of the whole school. But, as with other great high school movies, the genius is in the characterisation and the detail. Jon Heder puts in a performance as Napoleon that sees our hero lurch between the catatonic, the ridiculous and (bedecked in brown polyester suit) the downright so-geeky-he's-cool. It's a minimal style that manages to suggest an entire inner world not so far from our own (yet subtly different – in Napoleon's world bowstaff skills are essential) behind permanently half-closed eyes.

This sparseness is mirrored in the wide open spaces of the Idaho landscape – not a side of America that we often see – and in the production style. Nothing really happens and Hollywood-style cause and effect is dislocated to the point of non-existence. But this is hardly a fault when Napoleon is backed up by such an assortment of misfits, oddballs and farmyard animals. Brother Kip is obsessed with his sandy-haired internet lover; Uncle Rico with 1982; Pedro's gangster brothers have got his back, and grandma's gone for a quad-bike date on the dunes... I could go on, but to explain the glamour shots, the Rex Kwon-Do or the future farmers of America, would be like trying to explain morris dancing to an alien – entirely redundant – and would go some way to robbing the film of its charm. Napoleon Dynamite is an eccentricity destined to become 'cult' if ever there was one: there lurks a future army of devotees (nerds? Us? Unsurprisingly, the official website is top notch) ready to reel off killer lines till the cows come home.

But this is not a bad thing: cult films usually become so for good reason and Napoleon Dynamite is original, stylish, incredibly funny, and poignant in its depiction of the awkward teenage years. His ungainliness, unpopularity, and his touchingly underplayed (to the point of non-existence) relationship with Deb (Tina Marjorino) are sure to resonate with experiences from all of our formative years. Though of course we were all popular. Yeah.

From a high school culture obsessed with beauty and scared of non-conformity, one that is increasingly dominating America's self-image and world view, Jared and Jerusha Hess, the husband and wife team who wrote and directed Napoleon Dynamite have plucked out something genuinely different and absorbing. Enjoy.
Contributors retain the copyright to their own contributions. Everything else is copyright © Spannered 2015.
Please do not copy whole articles: instead, copy a bit and link to the rest. Thanks!