Napoleon Dynamite

UK release date: Mar 26 2008

cast list

Jon Heder
Jon Gries
Aaron Ruell
Efren Ramirez
Haylie Duff

directed by
Jared Hess

The attention so far thrust upon director Jared Hess’ debut feature is based largely on the fact that a) it cost a few beans to make, and b) that it was a “sleeper” (i.e. its domestic US audience took a while to cotton on). In a world where every movie’s PR (certainly Stateside, anyway), makes some sort of claim to uniqueness, Napoleon Dynamite has one boast to call its own. This is where the “ultranerds” really hold sway.

The concept of a film about a geeky-looking, bespectacled, bullied teenager who lives with his grandmother may not be a new one. From Rebel Without a Cause to The Last Picture Show, from American Graffiti to Election and Welcome to the Dollhouse, there is no shortage of put-upon teens performing a significant role in the service of cinema’s grand scheme. But Hess’ birthplace Preston, Idaho – in Napoleon Dynamite, anyway – is a place where even the cool kid with the beautiful girlfriend has more than ample teeth, a 50s crew cut, and wears long shorts with his t-shirt tucked in – The Fonz he ain’t.

Everything is relative here, which detracts slightly from the impact of the anti-hero of the film’s title. John Heder plays Napoleon, whose gran disappears after a sand buggy incident, and leaves him at home with thirty-something brother Kip, (and his webchat girlfriend LaFawnduh), and the unwanted visitor Uncle Rico. Rico (complete with awful wig) goes door-to-door, selling Tupperware to lonely housewives, telling them that his young nephew still wets the bed.

Napoleon, whilst harbouring theories about plots to kill the Loch Ness Monster, and a fondness for the liger – a cross between a tiger and a lion (“It’s my favourite animal”) – certainly outweirds some strong opposition in the movie. He’s unlucky with girls, until he befriends shy Mexican student Pedro (Efren Ramirez), and backs his run for class presidency against the glamorous and popular Summer (Haylie Duff).

Heder is perfect as Napoleon. His squinting, open-mouthed gaze, and monotone utterances of “idiot!” and “sweet” are spot-on, as is his quirky physical approach to ball games and dancing – the latter of which takes on a new lease of life as the film wears on. The cast as a whole, and the freakishness of the entire set-up, work well for the most part. Yet as mainstream cinema likes to make just too much noise too often, equally indie cinema can also strike a few too many minor chords for its own good sometimes.

At the risk of clich, it’s tempting to label Napoleon Dynamite a “promising debut”, but the lack of belly laughs it so often promises, and the overall disturbing and peculiar feeling the bizarre inhabitants of Preston, Idaho leaves behind, makes you wonder if Jared Hess, with all the positive things going for his picture, is just biding his time for the next one.

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