Monday 24 April 2017

Movie Review: Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

An off-beat comedy about the unlikeliest of nerds in the unlikeliest of settings, Napoleon Dynamite marches to its beat of brilliant weirdness.

In the tiny rural community of Preston, Idaho, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a gangly and socially clueless 16 year old high school kid. His only skill is sketching imaginative animals. He lives at home with his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who at 32 years old is addicted to online chatting. When their grandmother is hospitalized after a sand dune buggy accident, Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) arrives to ostensibly look after Napoleon and Kip.

But the egotistical Rico, who lives in a camper van, is still dreaming of making it as a pro football player and lamenting a lost game during his college years. He sets off with Kip to make money as door-to-door salesmen. Meanwhile, Napoleon meets equally awkward classmates Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and Deb (Tina Majorino). Pedro tries to woo Summer (Haylie Duff), the most popular girl in school, while Napoleon invites Summer's best friend Trisha (Emily Kennard) to a party. These attempts at relationships predictably don't end well, but nothing deters Napoleon.

Directed by Jared Hess, who also co-wrote the film with his wife Jerusha, Napoleon Dynamite is a study in the unexpected. Following exactly no rules, the film goes off to explore and amplify the awkwardness of growing up in nowheresville USA, and succeeds in delivering a stunningly original understated comedy. Among other outliers, the film features a stubborn llama, adventures on an egg farm, a dubious time travel machine, and the unlikeliest transformation for Kip.

Napoleon's obliviousness provides him with unshakable strength. Every potentially significant emotional setback washes off his back and on he marches into the next surreal situation armed with his unique brand of uncoordinated ineptitude. In their own way, Kip, Uncle Rico, Deb and Pedro are cut from the same cloth. Napoleon Dynamite places the marginalized left-behinds of society's cliques at the centre of attention, and finds the resiliency that allows them to dust themselves off and go on.

Hess directs with a quiet observational tone, the camera settling down to record with long takes and wide perspectives to capture the expanse of rural America. Everyone has a plan and an angle, maybe even a dream, but Preston, Idaho is a place where not much will change over time, no matter what. The film's time setting is appropriately vague and confused. Much of the surroundings, including the music and fashions, evoke the 1980s, but Kip lives his life online, including establishing a relationship with vivacious chat room girlfriend LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery).

In his feature film debut Jon Heder get the role of a lifetime and delivers a mythical performance. Napoleon awkwardly and hilariously over-emotes, learned mannerisms that scream of a desire to fit in. Never smiling, Heder's eyes are often closed, his lanky body contorted into every posture except comfortable. Efren Ramirez and Tina Majorino complete the triangle of inelegance, but in their case less is more; both drown their misfit status with quiet sedateness, with Ramirez's Pedro bordering on catatonic.

An off-beat celebration of being different, Napoleon Dynamite commands the stage and dances in its own groove, achieving legendary status.

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