Entering the company of Napoleon Dynamite (John Heder), you know you've met this year's top choice for Hipster Halloween Costume. A teenager living a life of nonexistent expectations in rural Idaho, he's an unforgettable mess. His gangly body ends in a head that's topped with an unsightly red Afro and set off by fashion-backward eyeglasses that Lenscrafters would refuse to sell. When he's exasperated, his asthmatic voice becomes a sigh that sounds like steam escaping. In denial of his microscopic status at his high school, Napoleon maintains his self-esteem by reciting a résumé of fictitious personal "skills" he thinks will attract the ladies. Like bowhunting. And the proper use of nunchucks.
Did I say "mess?" I meant "hero."
The triumphantly uncool Napoleon has the audience in his back pocket throughout this weirdly compelling picture (by director/co-writer Jared Hess). And it's a good thing he does, because the film that bears his name isn't about to get by on plot. Napoleon's hilariously mundane misadventures take the form of hit-and-run set pieces, glued together about as tightly as the deleted scenes on a DVD. The film is thus already being dismissed in some circles as having no story, but that's an oversimplification. Each seemingly disconnected episode is really another step on Napoleon's path to acceptance (as opposed to the illusion of it). How he gets there has important consequences for everyone in his world, including his terminally sedate Mexican buddy, Pedro (Efren Ramirez); his Internet-addicted older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell); and their Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), who's stuck in a state of nostalgic yearning for his own personal heyday: 1982.
It's as if John Hughes fashioned one of his teen comedies solely around the supporting characters, then handed the project to a filmmaker who could be immeasurably more sympathetic to their dreams and desires. (Only Diedrich Bader's role as a boorish martial-arts instructor feels like a caricature.) Poignant even when in the throes of slapstick clumsy physical altercations abound the movie puts a refreshing spin of awkwardness on situations that should be utterly played out. There's a big school dance, an all-important election for student-body president and, of course, a few heart-palpitating homeroom crushes and bitter rejections.
What sets it all apart is the movie's lunatic calm, its cleareyed view of a residential wasteland that looks like grotesquerie ... until you realize that nothing in the film lacks a real-world precedent. Look closely at one interior shot, in which a family's living room is decorated in photographic portraits of their uncomfortably posed kids. You knew somebody who had those pictures. And you probably knew someone like Napoleon, who's so out of the loop that he thinks he can mouth off to the very bullies who regularly body-slam him into the school lockers.
Director Hess obviously wants you to reflect that you may have been that kid yourself. But you were lucky if you saw your alienation through the way Napoleon does. In his most honest moments, he has to acknowledge that he's a zero in every social equation, yet he never doubts that he's entitled to be happy. That message has resonance far beyond the film's subject or its genre; with such a pearl waiting to be plucked, how much of a story does one really need?