It’s no stretch to say that the improbably named Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is not the most socially adept student in his rural Idaho high school. He spends most of his school day drawing wizards and imaginary animals in his notebooks, and dodging random acts of bullying from his classmates. He walks through life with eyes that barely seem open and only has two tones of voice- utterly bored or utterly annoyed. When frustrated, he lets out a sigh that sounds like an asthmatic’s death rattle. Needless to say Napoleon isn’t much of a hit with the ladies, though he believes that is because he doesn’t have any really “sweet skills.” Life at home isn’t much better as he has to deal with his 31-year old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) who spends his time talking to his girlfriend on the Internet and his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) who seems fixated on a crucial high school football game from twenty years ago. Napoleon does make a friend in Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a new student who is almost as socially withdrawn as Napoleon is. Together with shy girl Deb (Tina Majorino), Napoleon and Pedro find that their friendships give them the strength to become more active in school, asking out dates for a dance and running Pedro for class president.
Napoleon Dynamite is without a doubt the funniest and smartest film to be released this year. Director Jared Hess could very well be the next major new comedy voice. The humor in this movie is quirky but rooted in an often times painful honesty. Nearly everyone can recall a Napoleon from their school days, a kid who was picked on for their lack of social skills. But at no point are Napoleon, Pedro or Deb held up for ridicule by the film. This movie isn’t a satirical look at high school like this past spring’s Mean Girls; it’s a character piece that pulls its laughs from the characters and not the situations they find themselves in. Hess also knows how to get his audience to empathize with his characters. As Napoleon and his friends watch the rest of their classmates enjoy a semi-formal dance, the song “Forever Young” plays on the soundtrack, never sounding more like a threat.
As Napoleon, the gawky Jon Heder is an incredible acting find. He physically commits to the role as few actors do, whether it is doing a sign language interpretation of Bette Midler’s song “The Rose” with the school’s Helping Hands Club or shoveling a tater tot into his mouth. The climactic scene where Napoleon unveils his newly developed special skill to help Pedro win the class president election is astounding and will leave you gasping from laughter and amazement.
The film’s design is an odd mix of the 1980s and the present day, where modern cell phones and the Internet mix with Trapper Keeper notebooks, Kaboodle makeup cases and top loading VCRs. A comment about life in Idaho on the part of the director? Perhaps, but it does make for an interesting visual texture and supplies many little surprises for viewers who grew up in the 80s to discover. (I have to admit to emitting a squeal of recognition when I saw that the Dynamite household kitchen features the exact same model crock-pot that I own.)