Were you the weirdo in high school? It’s ok, you can admit it. I was. My friends were. Fortunately there were enough of us that we banded together and had quite an excellent little social circle. It’s hard to be a weirdo, especially as a teenager. Balancing that fine line between wanting to be accepted but still wanting to be yourself is what it’s all about. Don’t believe me? Ask Napoleon Dynamite.
In many ways, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is your typical teenager. He’s usually hungry, looks like he’s half-asleep at any given moment, and is mainly concerned with looking cool and finding a date for the dance. He likes: martial arts, tater tots, drawing, and Chapstick. He dislikes: his family, especially his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a sleazy salesman type who still dreams of his glory days as a high school football hero, and his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who stays home all day hitting on “babes” in chatrooms, the popular kids at school, and getting beat up. See, Napoleon marches to the beat of his own drummer. Still, he’s a pretty decent guy, so he reaches out to a couple of fellow weirdos: Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who’s recently arrived from Mexico, and Deb (Tina Majorino), who’s shy but uniquely motivated. Together, the three of them will do their best to navigate the wilds of high school and, by working to get Pedro elected class president, find a way to stick it to the popular kids at the same time.
This is an odd little movie. It’s got all the hallmarks of your standard high school comedy, but in many ways, it’s more a collection of character sketches. There’s not exactly a single over-arching plot, but rather several different threads going on at the same time. There’s a certain amount of savvy in this kind of set-up, namely the fact that the movie’s intended audience has either already been through high school or is going through high school and can undoubtedly find things in common with Napoleon Dynamite and his friends. To cite a specific example, for those of us of the right generation, the introduction of the internet as a means of social interaction strikes a resonant chord. Beyond that, the major themes of alienation and acceptance are universal. Addressing those themes is what this movie does best.
With regard to the acting or the artistic work done on the film, it’s hard to have a marked opinion. The acting, though convincing, is fairly subdued across the board, in keeping with the apathetic attitude of its main character. Even the scenery and costumes seem designed to present a certain flatness; the film is set in a rural town in Idaho, so it’s pretty, but fairly bucolic. Even when tensions flare, the overall feel of the piece is on an even keel. All of this definitely serves to make the movie distinctive and adds to the feeling of being trapped in high school hell. The characters seem to take nearly everything in stride; rejection is par for the course here. The few occasions that actually contain more of a spark are quiet but poignant moments, heightened, perhaps, by the colorlessness of what comes before and after.
Despite this subdued nature, it is the characters themselves who are fascinating. Pedro is as confused and overwhelmed as any teenager, but his troubles somehow carry a different weight given his racial background. Hints of racism appear in a few scenes; one of multiple themes that are raised briefly and discarded again. Pedro takes most of these things in stride, carrying himself with a quiet confidence that things will work out for the best. Deb is a brightly colored artist among a sea of classmates in khaki, but she fades into the background due to her demeanor. Still, she is the only character who mentions going to college, unusual in a film about high school, and Tina Majorino manages to infuse her shy exterior with obvious passion and ambition. Napoleon himself exemplifies all of the vast potential of a teenager. He’s sullen but caring, unique but seeks acceptance, confident yet easily embarrassed. Above all, he is a true and loyal friend. Jon Heder is definitely the star here; it takes a rare talent to create a character both obnoxious and sympathetic.
I wasn’t sure to expect from Napoleon Dynamite. My initial impression based on the reports of others was that it was a particularly stupid depiction of teenaged life; mainly something to laugh at. In the final tally, I do think it is more than that. Obviously, audiences continue to find it entertaining and amusing, but I would suggest that to do so is to merely accept the movie at face value. If one focuses more closely on the characters, there seems to be very little to laugh at. I didn’t think they were funny because I have known these people. They’re just trying to get through the day with a little dignity intact. To look at someone like Napoleon and only see his odd interests and his unique sense of self is to see only half the picture. It’s possible that I am assigning entirely too much depth to the film. Perhaps it was only meant to be funny. Still, I would suggest that there is a great deal of inherent realness and humanity in these characters.
I fear I have made Napoleon Dynamite sound like a film of great meaning and emotion. That was not my intention. It’s only so-so as movies go, but it addresses the stereotype of high school from a unique and interesting perspective. Things don’t magically change at the end. Napoleon doesn’t become popular. He doesn’t get the hottest girl in school. Things stay largely within the same framework throughout, and that’s really very satisfying. So, a feel-good hit, then? It’s not that, either. Overall, I think it’s a simple piece that can work in a variety of ways. If you want to watch funny characters do and say funny things, you can do that. If you want to look a little more closely and see surprisingly real people, you can do that, too. There are probably films that do both better, but Napoleon Dynamite does things its own, special way.