Remember that kid who was always drawing mythical beasts in his notebooks? Whose hitched-up pants and tucked-in T-shirts merely served to attenuate his gangly limbs? Whose evasive, half-shut eyes complemented his permanently slackened jaw and perpetual wheeze? And who, with no apologies, panted over time machines advertised in the backs of comic books and posted a sign on his bedroom door establishing "Pegasus Xing"? That's Napoleon (Jon Heder), a teenager who has reached such Olympian heights of nerdishness that he's oblivious to it as failure or achievement. Even as Napoleon is harangued and abused at school, he reacts with righteous indignation, utterly unconvinced that he's the problem. And for this -- for his dignity in the face of scorn, for his unabashed himselfness -- we love Napoleon Dynamite.
The movie loves him, too. In fact, it's nothing less than a celebration of its central character, hardships, foibles, bad hair and all. It takes place in Preston, Idaho, the hometown of director Hess (who cowrote the film with his wife, Jerusha), and it catalogs, with patience and art, the disappointments and victories (however small) in Napoleon's life.
Napoleon lives with his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) -- who, at 32, has no occupation other than searching for his "soul mate" in Internet chat rooms -- in the home of their feisty grandmother (Sandy Martin). When Grandma breaks her coccyx in a dune-buggy accident (truly, it's hilarious), Napoleon and Kip can hardly be entrusted to take care of themselves. So Grandma sends Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a sleazy salesman caught in the glory days of 1982. As if born to the role of meddlesome caregiver, Rico immediately sets about establishing a Tupperware business, eating all of the family's steak and ruining Napoleon's life.
Such as it is. Napoleon can barely communicate with anyone, let alone girls. But when Deb, a shy student who braids gimp lanyards and runs a home glamour-shot business, shows up on his doorstep, he's confronted with the need to learn. At first, Deb tries to sell Napoleon a lanyard, and he makes the ultimate geek mistake of saying exactly what he means: "I already made, like, infinity of those in Scout camp." This, of course, is not what Deb needs to hear, and she runs away in shame.
Later, Napoleon makes it up to her, in his staccato, painfully awkward way. But she doesn't mind. Like Napoleon, Deb is untroubled by appearances; instead, she seeks (and sees) inner beauty. Actress Tina Majorino plays Deb like a young Lili Taylor, all buttercup sweetness and light. You want to reach out and give her a big hug, though, of course, she doesn't need it. She already feels the love.
What a pleasure it is to watch a film that so adores its characters, and that allows them the space to be totally themselves. There is so much compassion, wisdom and comic insight here that the film is hugely rewarding. Deadpan irony is the rule, understatement is the lingua franca, and the result is an unceasingly accurate portrayal of real people whose quiet lives are touching and humanly grand. Though Napoleon and his friends often seem locked inside their bodies, unable to break out into authentic expression, they manage to get their points across. And whenever they do speak, mumble or drone, every utterance is authentic; their unbending earnestness is enough to melt even the iciest heart. When the slinky-smoove star of Napoleon's instructional dance video asks him whether he's ready to get his groove on, Napoleon, a boy any self-respecting groove has long since abandoned, says, "Yuuuus." And then he does it. He totally gets his groove on.