Indie films have an obvious edge over studio projects: They are free to be the best roadside chili dog in Monterey rather than another focus-grouped, taste-feel-engineered McWhatever. The sense of liberty and joy is sometimes palpable and self-justifying, as it is in Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite, an Idaho wild one that thrusts us into a high school senior year like no other. Hess has the low-budget-comedy wastrel deadpan—the one Jarmusch stole from Warhol, and Wes Anderson has made semi-mainstream—down to a science, and his dry pause-and-cut idiosyncrasies are Swiss-timed. But more than anything, the film is an epic, magisterially observed pastiche on all-American geekhood, flooring the competition with a petulant shove.
At the discomfiting core of this delightfully plotless space-out is the titular über-nebbish (Jon Heder), cursed with a name only Elvis Costello could think up, a toothy pre-man voice that sounds like basset hounds humping, and a talent for essentially nothing at all. Napoleon is so outrageously awkward it’s a wonder the jocks at Preston High (which Hess actually attended) don’t just beat him to death; it might be the ne plus ultra of cataclysmic pubertal portraits. Beyond even the misaligned-joint body language and entropic curls, Napoleon’s a perfectly conceived and executed battery of melodramatic harrumphs, bruised exhalations, defensive squints, clueless pronouncements, and explosively irate retorts. The image of him defiantly hurling a class-prez campaign button down the crowded school hallway earns a laugh days after you see it. Out-cretinizing even Heather Matarazzo’s doormat in Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse and Wiley Wiggins’s unschooled freshman in Dazed and Confused, Heder’s Napoleon is such a fantastic creation you can’t help seeing him as both a catastrophically extreme case and the common flailing nerd we all still shelter in our deepest memory banks.
Set in a vague ’80s vapor, Napoleon Dynamite is richly inventive but spare—little is, finally, at stake. But the comic details are thick as a brick, most of them willfully absurd: the Idaho landscape of desert highways, Chicano gang cars, chicken farms, and llamas; Napoleon’s older, even wimpier brother, Kip (the rather amazing Aaron Ruell), landing a girlfriend he’s not aware is a man; the boys’ unsavory Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) videotaping himself throwing touchdown passes. Napoleon himself tries to “score” with “babes,” finagles a date to the prom (hyper-aware of cliché, Hess minimizes this humiliating set piece, and doesn’t even capitalize on Napoleon impulsively mouthing a tobacco chaw and then swallowing it), and coordinates a student-body election run for his only friend, the new, slightly dim Mexican kid in town (Efren Ramirez). But the unlikely climactic triumph aside, Napoleon Dynamite is more concerned with texture and daffy non sequitur, down to the supremely kitschy Casio score by John Swihart.
Mention should be made of Tina Majorino (remember her, from When a Man Loves a Woman and Waterworld?), who as a quiet, misfitty teen entrepreneur wipes her dainty feet on her generation’s better-known starlets. But the center of Hess’s cyclone is Heder and his tetherball-playing monster teen, who is both the film’s forbidding hero and its great object of derision. Unlike the Solondz film, Napoleon Dynamite exudes little sense of social horror; it struggles to maintain a sunny disposition despite the traumatic social meltdown we witness and the apparent fact that Napoleon is headed not for a tech college but for a long, dire career in food service. He’s all too emblematic of too many Americans, and if Hess’s movie weren’t so funny, it’d be a tragedy.