Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Dir. Jared Hess
Starring: Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino

Can an indie film be too indie? When the film in question is Napoleon Dynamite then I guess that, unfortunately, the answer is ‘yes’.

The basic plot of the film is a very light one. Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a high-school outsider par excellence. He is both socially and physically graceless, and he has a tendency to live in his own fantasy world. He is also cursed with an extremely dysfunctional family. Elder brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) is a jobless dweeb who spends his time “chatting online to babes all day” and dreams of becoming a cage-fighter and Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) tries get-rich-quick scheme after get-rich-quick scheme and dreams of going back to 1982 and getting picked for the school American football team, certain that this is where all his misfortunes spring from. He strikes up a friendship of a sort with a newcomer to the school, Mexican Pedro Sanchez (Efren Ramirez). Pedro decides to run for class president against the popular queen-bee Summer (Haylie Duff) and Napoleon decides to help him. That is it.

The film is not plot-driven. It is character-driven, and it is full of memorable characters. Head of the list would have to be Heder’s phenomenal portrayal of Napoleon, a boy with no real social skills or redeeming features, yet who still manages to attract our sympathy because, actually, we can empathise with his gangly uncoordinated pubescent agonies. His exasperated nasal exclamations are quite imitable: “Gosh!” He believes that he is a great artist, that ligers (the offspring of lions and tigers) are “bred for their skills in magic”, and that people believe his outlandish stories (such as that he keeps nunchuks in his locker or that he spent the summer “with my uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines”). Deb (Tina Majorino) is soft-hearted and trying to pay her way through college by selling home-made “boondoggle key chains” and offering terrible fashion shoots. Uncle Rico wants to be charming but just comes across as grotesque; twinkly-eyed but blaming all his bad decisions on one turning point some twenty years previously.

Uncle Rico is literally living in the past, going over and over in his head how by now he would definitely be a millionaire and be living with his soul mate if he had only been picked for the American football team back in high school. He even buys a hokum time machine off the internet in the hope of trying to get back to 1982. This is funny, because in many ways the entire film is living in the ‘80s. The fashion is definitely period, from Napoleon’s moonboots to Kip’s moustache to Deb’s puff-sleeved prom dress and back to Napoleon’s chocolate brown three-piece suit. The height of fashion is a soft-focus smoky-eye-shadowed glamour photo. If it weren’t for the opening credits showing Napoleon’s 2004-5 school card and the presence of two more modern numbers for the presidential candidates’ skits (Backstreet Boys and Jamiroquai) I might have assumed that the film was indeed set in the ‘80s.

Heck, this is probably the best flipping time machine ever invented!

I like the characterisation, but the fact that everyone is so god-damn quirky irks me. Napoleon’s grandmother (Sandy Martin) keeps a ham-eating llama and goes quad biking. Napoleon drags an action figure behind the school bus on a string; he never explains why. Rico lives in a bright-orange campervan and dresses like he is from the ‘70s. Pedro shaves his head because he figures it is his hair that is making his head hot. Kip becomes gangsta (after flirting with Rex-Kwan-Do). There is a competition where Napoleon has to guess what is wrong with glasses of milk (“This tastes like the cow got in to an onion patch”). There is so much incidental colour that it threatens to overshadow the movie itself.

What have I learnt about Idaho?
Well, I’ve seen a different sort of scenery. The landscape around Preston comprises flat green valleys fringed by low brown hills – very different to the snow-capped mountains of Sun Valley. It is an agricultural area, with battery chicken farms, farmers’ fairs, and livestock being kept (both cows and llamas). Despite being out in the boondocks the situations faced in high school are familiar to any high school movie set in California (though, of course, with less emphasis on surfing). There don’t seem to be many Mexicans around either (in reality Hispanics and Latinos account for 5.04% of the population of Preston according to the 2000 census). Finally, they love their Tater Tots – hash brown like balls of fried potato that hail from the Oregon / Idaho region.

Can we go there?
The credits state that Napoleon Dynamite was filmed entirely on location in the beautiful state of Idaho. In particular it is set in the south east corner, not far from the Utah border, in the town of Preston. The real life Preston High School on E 2nd Street was used as a filming location. Napoleon’s house is located at 1447 E 800 N, while Pedro’s is 59 S 2nd E (they have some weird street names in this city!) Other locations include Deseret Industries on South State Street, where Napoleon buys his prom suit, Pop N’ Pins Lanes outside of town, where Kip and Rico go bowling, and the Ritewood Egg Farm, where you get paid $1 an hour and all the raw egg you can drink. And do you know something? Preston is pretty chuffed about the connection. In fact, between 2004 and 2008 they even held a ‘Napoleon Dynamite Festival’, featuring a Tetherball Tournament, a Tater Tot Eating Contest, a Football Throwing Contest, a Moon Boot Dance, and Impersonation and Lookalike competitions. Even more bizarrely in 2005 the Idaho State Legislature passed a motion commending the filmmakers  for producing the movie.

Overall Rating: 3/5