It isn’t easy being weird. And it isn’t easy getting through the hellscape of high school adolescence. And it isn’t easy living on the outer edges of the boondocks. And while we have plenty of great movies that mine any of those three narrative landscapes, along comes one movie that decides to take on all three and produce something that is so sublimely random, so aggressively non sequitur, so completely cool by not trying to be cool, and so ironic without trying to be ironic. That movie is Napoleon Dynamite, and in its way, it is the perfect distillation of everything we ever hated about ourselves while growing up, and everything that once we did grow up, we try to hold on to.
In the nowhere burg of Preston, Idaho, Napoleon Dynamite is an uber-dork of the first order. He schleps around in weird puffy boots. He regards everything with a slack-jawed mixture of befuddlement and disdain. He lives with his grandmother and his 32-year-old brother Kip, who is the kind of internet stereotype that is made fun of by other internet stereotypes. When Grandma Napoleon breaks her coccyx in a four-wheeler accident, in moves their uncle Rico, a bragadoccious knucklehead who is just as out of touch as Napeoleon and Kip. Napoleon strikes up a friendship with Deb—a fellow student who runs all kinds of strange little side hustles to earn college money—and Pedro—a quiet kid who just moved to Idaho from Mexico and is who might be the fish most out of water in the entire story. As we watch Napoleon and his crew mumble their way through various misadventures, a fateful prom night leaves Pedro spurned by Summer Wheatly, the sort pretty and popular snob that American high schools are so good at producing. Pedro decides to run against Summer for class president, and somehow, this presents Napoleon with the kind of grand contest that allows him to finally prove to somebody, anybody that he actually has “skills.” Whatever that means.
Yeah, I know. It doesn’t sound like much. On paper, this is the kind of movie that even at its meager budget, most studios greenlight just for the tax writeoff. But throughout all of the bizarre references and self-contextual humor emerges a strangely warm and endearing tale chock full of one-liners that provides the kind of coming of age story that is a pretty good stand-in for the kind of angst-driven disassociation that is everyone’s teenage years.
Part of this movie’s charm is how the story takes place in the 2004-2005 school year, but from what we can see of the clothes people wear, the music they listen to and every other mundane detail of their lives, this is a universe where the 80s and 90s never quit existing and all live together with the early aughts in some kind of low-rent temporal mashup. The story seems to tap into a single well and draw forth both an effective nostalgia for the worst parts of the early MTV years as well as a modern comment on how the only thing that ensures style lives forever is that first, it always dies.
Another part is how the story takes place in a town with a population equal to 1/10th the seating capacity of Yankee Stadium. Throughout the movie, we are introduced to an endless cast of oddballs and misfits standing aside those who seem to think highly of themselves without realizing that they are merely middling-sized fish in an extremely small pond. But throughout this, we never get the sense that the movie has any venom toward Preston. Rather, it kind of reminds us that in our own way, everybody is a little embarrassed of their hometown, perhaps because there is always something to be embarrassed by, and perhaps because part of growing up means learning to turn your back a little on where you came from. Even if only to go to the mall or something.
At the heart of this all is, of course, our titular character, who is the kind of person who is a complete loser at everything he comes into contact with. But on another level, he has the sense of mind to try to accomplish something even when everyone around him is perfectly content to sit around and clutch a beloved nothing. There’s a whackadoodle nobility to Napoleon, who might earn a few minor successes along life’s way, but never without paying a price for it, or being reminded of his status as some kind of weirdo.
This all comes to a head during our moment of truth, when Napoleon is helping Pedro campaign for class president, and must rescue his friend, who gives a terrible campaign speech and doesn’t even have a skit to back it up. Napoleon sighs and does the only thing he can: give his mixtape to the guy in the sound booth and bust out some sick dance moves to “Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai in a performance so weirdly epic that no one will ever hear that song ever again and not think about this movie. And yeah, Napoleon scores a much-needed clutch win for his friend and gets a whole lot of unexpected validation from everyone else in a way that reminds us that that we’re never as hopeless as we think we are. But first, Napoleon still ends up over-egging his dance and ends up embarrassing himself off-stage because he’s so into his own moves that he can’t tell the music has ended. It’s the kind of cringe moment we all wince about years after the fact. But you know what? Better to keep dancing after the tape stops than to leave your buddy hanging without a skit. If everything turns out alright in this story, it’s only because our heroes are willing to make endless down payments on it with their pride. And that’s kind of badass. Maybe not Rex Kwon Do badass, but what is?