Dir: Jared Hess. US. 2004. 86mins.
Napoleon Dynamite, which was met in Park City by raucous cheers and bursts of unsuppressed chuckling, is exactly the kind of off-beat comedy that delights otherwise earnest festivals such as Sundance. Within hours of its first screening, word on this occasionally-inspired portrait of Loserville, Idaho, which played in dramatic competition, quickly spread around town. And yet this modestly made film should not be allowed to carry the burden of expectation that is the too often lot of Sundance sensations. Comic surprise is its greatest weapon.
In a typical industry screening, such a deadpan first-time feature might have fallen flat with, or even irritated, those unwilling to succumb to its sly absurdities and gallery of rural dim-wits. But in a Utah mountain setting not so removed from the high prairie community skewered by Jared Hess, such a low-budget effort can induce belly laughs from the locals while landing a multi-million-dollar global distribution deal.
Whether Fox Searchlight will be able to replicate the giddy festival response in the real world, and avoid the commercial fate that have befallen other Sundance comedy favourites, will depend on its ability to tap a young adult audience that wants to see an off-kilter spin on the revenge-of-the nerds story. With a droll bitter-sweetness that evokes films like Rushmore and a less edgy Welcome To The Dollhouse, this has cult comedy written all over it - particularly since its title character has such a catchy name.
As depicted by co-writer and director Hess, his Idaho home-town of Preston is populated by odd-balls and idiots. And none come odder and more outwardly idiotic than the unforgettable central character of Napoleon Dynamite (Heder). Instantly recognisable by his curly mop of carrot-coloured hair and awkward behavioural quirks, he is that unapologetic ueber-nerd who exists to be the perpetual butt-end of high-school ridicule.
Napoleon shares a ranch-style bungalow with his grandmother, his family llama in the sweeping back-yard and an emotionally-stunted 32-year-old brother (Ruell) whose only real connection to the outside world is through internet chat rooms. Needless to say, high school chicks treat Napoleon with disdain while jocks slam him against the lockers at every available opportunity. Finding a willing date for the annual school dance is just one of the many hurdles Napoleon has to navigate in his urge to fit in.
No less shunned is his new best friend Pedro (Ramirez), a shy Mexican misfit in this white community, who takes it upon himself to run against the high-school sweetheart (Duff) in the election for Student Body President. Teaming up with Napoleon, this unlikely duo ultimately triumphs - although revealing how they pull off this unlikely upset would spoil a painfully funny scene that lingers in the memory long after the grin has worn off.
Hess' affinity for social pariahs such as Napoleon walks that fine line between affectionate ridicule and belittling caricature. We laugh both with and at these pathetic characters. In the end, his evident fondness for these singular characters wins out over any derision, humanising characters that are too often scorned on screen. That all said, the film's international appeal will probably rest on its parodic take on American eccentricities.
Worldwide distribution: Fox Searchlight
Executive producers: Jeremy Coon, Jory Weitz
Producers: Jeremy Coon, Sean C. Covel, Chris Wyatt
Screenplay: Jared and Jerusha Hess
Cinematography: Munn Powel
Editor: Jeremy Coon
Music: John Swihart
Production design: Cory Lorenzen
Art direction: Curt Jenson
Costume design: Jerusha Hess
Main cast: Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez, Diedrich Bader, Tina Majorino, Haylie Duff, Trevor Snarr, Shondrella Avery