Napoleon Dynamite


Gen-X-Review-Napoleon-Dynamite-movie-posterWe were all geeks. Granted, you were probably more of a loser than me, but let’s just admit that no one makes it out of high school without a few acne scars.

The new independent film Napoleon Dynamite is a quirky, funny, heartbreaking collection of scenes. Less a cohesive film than a scrapbook of horrible, painful memories, the film achieves a sort of high pathetic glory by inviting us to relive those sordid high school days with its main character, Napoleon Dynamite.

Napoleon (Jon Heder) lives in a flat world as colorless and dull as a high school daydream. Although set in modern-day Preston, Idaho, the film is stuck in the 1980s, when Moonboots, G-Force watches, and mullets seemed to make sense.

Napoleon epitomizes the age. Tall and gangly, he shuffles through the hallways of high school, averting his eyes and banging into people. He and his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) are inert participants in a world outside their control, where they can’t understand the most basic social protocol of school life. Stuck on the outside looking in, they bond over shared experiences of alienation and dorkiness.

These characters are hotwired to the tedium and low-burn angst of adolescence, washed out and exhausted by the effort of life within the public school institution. Panning the crowd at a school function, we see the teens as hollow-eyed participants in a new One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Scooped out from the inside out and left to sit slack-jawed in front of teachers who don’t understand them.

This bland and desperate world of high school isn’t real, of course, and it doesn’t last. You want to grab Napoleon by the shoulders and shake him awake. You won’t be young forever, kid! Soon you will graduate from the world of petty geeks into the real world of terminal losers.

For example: Napoleon’s thirty-something brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) is a computer nerd who still lives at home and has had no long-term relationships. Addicted to Internet chat rooms and chronically unemployed, Kip doesn’t even own a car and must be carted to town by a cord connected to Napoleon’s 10-speed.

Even more pitiable, Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) recaptures his lost glory days on tape, replaying the last quarter of his last high school football game in 1982 when he just barely missed making the grade from a third-tier loser to a second-tier loser. Rico believes his life would be different if he had played that last quarter, rather than warming the bench, and he now lives in a van and dresses like a Joe Namath look-alike.

Girls are obviously off limits for these nerds. But when the female of the species – the much cherished girl dork – appears in the form of Deb (Tina Majorino), a Glamour Shots photographer in training, Napoleon and Pedro compete over her, reenacting the time-honored high school experience of survival of the fittest that results in the quintessential high school moment…The dance.

Nowhere does America sacrifice good taste to serve its own need for self-flagellation more than at the high school dance. The dance… The wing-tipped shoes, bad soft rock favorites of the seventies, eighties, and today, the ubiquitous disco ball, so cheesy that it could only survive in a prom, the smoke coming from the girls’ room, someone has thrown up again - and why does my date have to have a hair dangling from her underarm?

Yes, the high school dance: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, and as though the horror of the event is not enough, why, no, let’s engage in a lively social experiment that puts strangers together to dance under a spotlight.

Ah, the memories come back to me now: The bitter disappointments, the feelings of inadequacy that can only come from years and years of taunts, teasing and abuse, distilled like a fine vinegar. The cliques of losers, freaks and weirdoes; the before-school gang of nerds I’d sit with while dreaming of owning a muscle car and having a girlfriend; the years of failure and regret.

And this is where we meet Napoleon Dynamite once again. The reason stories about high school exclusion are so important to us culturally is that many of us secretly believe we were geeks. We all lived through a high school like Napoleon’s, where we were never entirely comfortable with our new bodies or the way words seemed to get lost between our brains and our tongues, and the uneasy laughter directed at Napoleon is liberating.

The film speaks to the sad, inner loser in each of us. Pathetic art works this way, by engaging our sympathies just as it forces us to confront the absurdities in our own lives. We are permitted to laugh at Napoleon, even as we secretly confess our own failures. I was Napoleon Dynamite, and my guess is so were you, and if you weren’t you’re even more pathetic since high school was, like, ages ago, loser.

Get over yourself already!


In Napoleon’s world the Dylan song, “Forever Young” is actually a thinly veiled threat, and rose-tinted glasses aside, this is probably the best advice for youngsters: Survive your youth.


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