Resembling a less malicious Todd Solondz film, or a clean John Waters movie, Napoleon Dynamite could emerge as the cult comedy of the summer. A hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival and winner of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival's award for best feature film, this drolly eccentric tale set in Preston, Idaho, marks the debut of an original new talent, 24-year-old director Jared Hess.
Hess and his wife Jerusha, who met as students at Brigham Young University, wrote this low-budget indie, centered on the travails of their title character, whose life, behavior and appearance are as odd as his name. Napoleon Dynamite is a high-school outcast with a bushy red Afro, spectacles, and a perpetual pained look on his face. He lives in a modest house with his dune buggy-riding grandmother and an unemployed older brother, Kip, who spends the day looking for love on the Internet. Napoleon's pathetic life, which includes daily pummelings by school bullies, gets worse when his grandma is injured in a driving accident, and his oily, macho Uncle Rico moves in. But things start to look up once Napoleon befriends Pedro, a taciturn Hispanic kid who decides to run for class president, and starts to take a romantic interest in Deb, a sweetly supportive classmate with a sideways ponytail.
The movie is virtually plotless, a mere skeleton on which to hang a series of quirky vignettes and incongruous sight gags (like Napoleon getting knocked off his bicycle by a well-aimed steak, or stuffing leftover tater tots from the school lunchroom into his pants pocket). Just about every major character in the film is a nerd, a misfit or an eccentric; the audience is encouraged to feel superior to them, but there's still something endearing about this oddball community seemingly stuck in time (at least fashion-wise). Napoleon, with his constant whining, sighing and grousing, is anything but attractive, but his modest ambitions ultimately bring dividends, whether it's the grotesque amateur artwork he uses as a courtship tool, or the solitary practice dance moves that help him pull off a big surprise.
The picture's biggest asset is its young lead, Jon Heder (yet another Brigham Young student). Look at his photo in the June Interview, and you'd never believe this good-looking guy is the same person embodying the gawky, cartoonishly homely Napoleon. He's a natural physical comedian, from the angular way he moves his body out of the film frame when beating a hasty retreat, to the clumsy fall he takes when scaling a fence. Jon Gries (The Rundown, Get Shorty) is also fun as the blustering Rico, who sells herbal breast enhancers door-to-door and has never fully recovered from his team's big championship football defeat way back in 1982. Aaron Ruell's Kip is, if anything, even nerdier than his much younger brother, and his subplot pays off with a big laugh once he meets his Internet dream girl. In the role of Pedro, Efren Ramirez manages to turn his earnest deadpan into an oddly effective comic style. Tina Majorino, a child star in such films as Waterworld and When a Man Loves a Woman, is adorable as the slightly off-center Deb, while Haylie Duff (sister of Hilary) easily slips into the role of Pedro's rival for class presidency, high-school golden girl Summer Wheatley.
Whether audiences laugh at or with them, the motley denizens of Preston, Idaho, and Napoleon Dynamite seem poised to win a devoted fan base.