Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Release Date: August 27th, 2004 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Jared Hess Actors: Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez, Diedrich Bader, Tina Majorino, Sandy Martin, Haylie Duff, Shondrella Avery, Carmen Brady, Ellen Dubin
apoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is gangly, ungainly, bunglesome, and definitely not one of the cool kids at Preston High School in Idaho. He’s not particularly articulate, his clothes aren’t fashionable, his stance is crooked, his eyes appear nearly shut when he communicates, and life on his grandmother’s (Sandy Martin) farm is unimaginably drab. Yet despite being bullied regularly, feeling the necessity to lie about extracurricular activities, and going through the monotonous motions of pointless school assignments (including performing sign language songs and reciting reports in front of the class), Napoleon has convinced himself that he’s in control of a great many things in his life – including self-respect.
His older brother Kipman “Kip” Ronald Dynamite (Aaron Ruell) doesn’t help matters, similarly obsessed with doing and saying things with obvious overstatement so as to appear more impressive. And when Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a heavily disillusioned man stuck in his youthful footballer days at college, comes to stay after Napoleon’s grandmother is hospitalized, even greater nuisances plague the household. Rico and Kip begin selling wares door-to-door, inspiring Napoleon to earn some money for himself, as he needs to buy a new outfit for the upcoming school dance, to which he’ll be taking classmate Trisha (Emily Kennard) – a girl forced by her mother to accompany him out of sympathy. As it turns out, spending time with new friends Pedro Sanchez (Efren Ramirez) and Deb (Tina Majorino) proves to be far more meaningful – along with the distractions of class elections and a talent show.
It’s a coming-of-age story that exaggerates the awkwardness of adolescence to a degree rarely seen in cinema – even in comedies. Uncomfortable stares, glassy-eyed expressions, the most unflattering hairstyles and inflections, and outrageous dialogue exemplify a quirky fixation on the past for some and a concern with the future for others. Characters dwell on former glories (even if they are stretches of the truth) and possibilities for forthcoming events, including juvenile notions of romantic relationships and happiness. The central three roles are those of extreme underdogs, combating the hardships of popularity, friendships, and the pressures of fitting in – with Napoleon’s refusal to entirely conform to teenage standards a distinctly appealing quality. Body image and self-esteem are hard-won ideals that are incredibly powerful when approached with such resolute positivity (and “D-Qwon’s Dance Moves”).
Additionally, the soundtrack is casual, catchy, and sensationally fitting, complementing the alternating weirdness and sweetness of the incredibly singular personas onscreen. Everyone approaches their roles with a seriousness that contrasts the utter ludicrousness of the interactions and the tediousness of small-town life. There’s also a bit of amusing slapstick – of the natural kind – where characters engage in dimwitted stunts (falling off a bike, getting hit in the face with food, tumbling over a fence) that actually influence the story instead of arising spontaneously. It’s all highly original, refreshingly unique, and unexpectedly poignant – and the most uncommonly hilarious comedy in years.
– Mike Massie