183 – Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is the typical sad-sack, luckless loser that has permeated high schools for seemingly centuries. He has no friends, he’s picked on by bullies, he has a somewhat-odd home life … but through it all, he’s sure things will be just plain okay in the end.

Napoleon and his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) live with their grandmother, but at the beginning of the film she tells them she needs to take off for a couple days. Enter their Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a self-starter who’s living in 1982 (when the coach of his high school football team declined to put him in as quarterback, thus altering Rico’s life forever). Some of the funniest scenes in the film involve Napoleon’s often-combative relationship with Uncle Rico; Rico is also bound and determined to return to those halcyon days of his youth via a time machine he’s seen advertised on the Internet, and he enlists Kip to help him raise the funds.

Napoleon befriends the new kid in school, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who has a sweet bike, can talk to girls, and has an actual mustache. But like Napoleon, Pedro is a misfit. Both sometimes hang out with yet another taciturn student, Deb (Tina Majorino, all grown up from Waterworld), who secretly (it seems) likes Napoleon. But there isn’t a lot of focus on their relationship, because Napoleon himself is fairly oblivious to how people perceive him. This isn’t a story about young love or lust, it’s a story about a misfit refusing to fit – while fitting in with others like him.

Jon Heder is perfectly cast as the gawky, dorky Napoleon; he resembles Butt-Head in countenance, although certainly not in temperment or intelligence. Mouth agape and with an awkward gait, Napoleon is about as odd a duck as you’d find in high school, and yet he still manages to survive with his dignity intact. He’s a good egg, although he seems to overreact at times: “What are you gonna do today, Napoleon? Napoleon: Whatever I feel like I wanna do…..GOSH!” Still, his delivery is perfect. You can readily picture a Napoleon in any high school.

I think where the film ultimately succeeds, aside from the casting of Heder, is that it doesn’t fall into the traps of predictability and stereotyping. Sure, it’s a high school movie, and there are snobby pretty girls and arrogant jocks, but not much time is devoted to them. Sure, there’s a big dance, but it doesn’t necessarily turn out the way you’d expect it to. What you’re left with, then, isn’t a typical coming-of-age story, but rather a unique take on a rather mundane – albeit life-altering – time in a boy’s life.

Napoleon Dynamite: ***

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