Napoleon Dynamite (Heder) is a teenage dork. Not a hey-let’s-put-glasses-on-Rachael-Leigh-Cook kind of teenage dork, but a unicorn-lovin’, lip-balmin’ Future Farmer of America with Dragonslayer
posters on the wall of his Preston, Idaho, bedroom. His tiny, lisping 32-year-old brother (Ruell) is a chat-room slave; his uncle Rico (Gries) sells "NuPont fiberwoven bowls" to farm wives and tries to time-travel back to his gridiron heyday in 1982. Like its mumbling, monotonous protagonist, this festival charmer takes its time making a point. It luxuriates in small-town kitsch (e.g., the "Happy Hands Club" pantomiming in American Sign Language to Bette Midler’s "The Rose") at such length that one wonders if it isn’t exploiting its characters, who are poor and rural and creepy and odd, from an arch indie platform, as do certain other more jaundiced filmmakers dealing in youth and family themes. (Todd Solondz, I’m looking in your direction.) Fortunately, writer-director Hess finally steps up in the second act and propels the story into its rightful place, celebrating the youthful underdog. And I do mean underdog, people – we’re talking stirrup pants and side ponytails and purple eyeshadow. It’s not pretty. Yet the movie successfully engages issues of class and race without bobbling its offbeat, offhand mood: Napoleon’s best friend (Ramirez) – by which I mean that they exchange a few halting words – is a migrant student from Juarez who pines for but is humiliated by the rich and perfect Big Girl on Campus (Haylie Duff, cybernetic look-alike sister of Hilary). This is the kind of movie you get when the kids from the AV Club grow out of their headgear, put down their 12-sided dice, and start making independent films. It’s not always narratively on point (its origins as a 2003 short are evident from its meanderings), but it gets along to the Big Dance, to Napoleon’s Big Moment, and the trés-1980s soundtrack-driven resolution all the same, and the detours are ultimately well worth the trip for the texture they provide. Heder sells the character completely, from his kinky red Poindexter hairdo to his puffy ankle boots (jeans tucked in, naturally). His every response to every situation is an exasperated slow-motion whine that’s almost painful to witness, but it does ring true. Adolescents are ugly and awkward and at times real shit heads; they don’t leap up helpfully to feed the family llama or clearly state their romantic and personal intentions. Real teenagers will run from this movie as if it were hot lava. For older and more reflective viewers, it’s a quirky, fresh slice-of-life more inviting than a tater-tot pyramid.