The cinematic history of the loser is storied and hilarious. It is the history of the underdog, the up and comer, the confident and quirky loner who overcomes all obstacles to preserve his own individuality while gaining greater acceptance and respect from society at large. You know the character; Paul Giamatti’s Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, Thora Birch’s Enid in Ghost World, and Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer in Rushmore are only the most recent examples, but the roots of the on-screen underdog date all the way back to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. You can keep your confident action hero, gliding through summer blockbuster explosions toward the fulfillment of his sexual conquests. I, on the other hand, am content to spend some quality time with Napoleon Dynamite.
Set in present-day rural Idaho, Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite knows its history. The film is the perfect pastiche of on-screen teenage nightmares, humiliations, hang-ups, and frustrations, all handled with self-assured dignity. The high school experience has always been fertile cinematic territory for the exploration of primal identity issues (Blackboard Jungle or Breakfast Club, anyone?), but Hess and his star, Jon Heder, offer a unique perspective on the classic formula by creating a central character that resembles, maybe for the first time ever, a real 21st century American teenager. That is, an angry, graceless, yet somehow endearing individual who is absolutely disgusted by the inconvenience of having to deal with other people (and anyone who has ever shopped at a mall in early December knows exactly what I am talking about.) As Napoleon, Heder gives one of the great on-screen performances of recent memory by creating a character so unique yet so true, I suspect that audiences will spend the remaining years of this decade quoting his frantic overreactions when confronted by the absurdity of their friends and neighbors.
If you are one of the few who haven’t seen the film, Napoleon is the story of Napoleon Dynamite (Heder), a working class nerd who shares the bus to High School with the elementary school kids and spends his days squinting and sighing through the numerous humiliations of the public school system; he participates in the Happy Hands synchronized sign language club (with some pleasure, surely), plays tether ball alone during gym class, and spends his class time drawing unicorns with a bad case of flatulence. Essentially an orphan who lives with his grandmother and 30 year old brother, the unemployed internet chat room troll Kip (the hilarious Aaron Ruell), Napoleon befriends Pedro (Efran Ramirez), the new kid at school who is ostracized by students and the administration alike for being from Mexico. As a structure for a film, the plot as it is functions less as a linear narrative and more as a joke delivery system, placing this motley crew of characters in unbearably funny situations and vignettes that are more atmospheric than important to the overall story. By the time the film gets around to launching its classic Revenge Of The Nerds payoff, the success or failure of Pedro and Napoleon’s quest to win the school presidency is a moot point. They have already won our hearts by simply enduring as individuals. It is this endurance that carries Napoleon beyond the realm of the teenage comedy.
It would be a mistake to simply see this “loser-makes-good” story in the context of other teen comedies, or even film comedy in general. While it is very hard to look past the hilarious gags and the over the top characters that populate the film, there is a broader, more hopeful thesis that is boiling just beneath the surface. In recent years, films about high school have focused on the great tragedy of school violence, and bullying in particular, as being the central experience of the American educational system. Metal detectors, guns, humiliation, and most importantly, fear have come to dominate the representation of high school in films like Zero Day, Elephant, Bully, and the recent Mean Creek. Much like the conscious exploitation of fear and terror that is splashed across every newspaper headline or that ticks along the bottom of every newscast, violence in the public schools hangs over our expectations now, the elephant in the room that passes without discussion but dominates the proceedings. In a film like Gus Van Sant’s exceptional Elephant, a Rashomon-style examination of a school massacre, the killings seem inevitable yet under-motivated. We know that violence will happen because the tone of the film supports our growing dread. We see the killers practicing the murders with guns purchased on-line, mapping out their terrible plan. What we never really see is what pushed them to decide to kill. All we get is to re-experience the same feeling of senseless and horror that comes with not knowing how something so terrible could happen. Even Bowling For Columbine offers no answers, only asserting that violence seems essential to our culture, a conditioned response that stems from our historical situation (dubious) and current political climate (somewhat dubious).
The other genre in teen film that has run wild is the ‘body-switching with a grown up’ genre ( Freaky Friday, 13 Going On 30, etc.) Of course, in a society that sexualizes the teenage experience starting at such a young age, it is no surprise that, in order to vicariously experience the sexual and emotional thrills of adulthood, teenage characters are replaced by attractive, successful adults in these films. How come no teen ever gets transplanted with Harvey Pekar, slaving away at a VA Hospital file office for 10 hours a day?
What makes Napoleon such a hopeful film, aside from its staus as a comedy, is the titular character’s relationship to the constant abuse and humiliation he endures. In this regard, Napoleon Dynamite is the anti-Elephant, and therefore a cause for cautious optimism. If ever there were an on-screen character poised to go on some sort of rampage against the world, or to flee it with escapist fantasies of transcendent adulthood, it is Napoleon. But instead of the violent or escapist reactions that seem to be the staple of teenage interaction on screen these days, Napoleon responds to the bullies (both familial and in his peer group) by getting his shit together. Napoleon, Pedro, and their mutual friend Deb (Tina Majorino) never betray their own instincts by attempting to conform to social norms. Instead, they reject the pressure to conform by never seeing conformity as an option. If anything, it is the object of their scorn and inconvenience. Instead of lashing out or feeling like victims, these characters work hard to perfect their own interests, from disco dancing to fashion photography. To Napoleon and his friends, conformity seems more ridiculous and less authentic than the choices they have already made.
Heroically, in the face of all of these pressures, Napoleon just is. He doesn’t pity other people, doesn’t see himself as being above them, smarter than them, more resourceful, or in any way superior. They are simply in the way. Napoleon is just as ridiculous as the bullies and snobs, as angry and crass as those who ignore or tease him. The difference is, Napoleon believes in his singular vision of the world with the devotion only a teenager could truly posess. The film supplies powerful insight into acceptance and the egotism of youth; other people’s opinions matter only as much as you allow them to. When you recognize the validity of your own voice, violence against others seems ridiculous. Who can be bothered? Instead, why not find contentment behind your bedroom door, practicing your sweet dance skills, blissful and oblivious, making your own life into art? Napoleon delivers the laughs and has the heart, but it is the optimistic faith in the triumph of individuality that sets it apart from the crowd. In this day and age, something as simple as personal endurance feels like a hopeful revelation.