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The classic jocks-versus-nerd teen movie gets an indie gloss in this celebration of geek chic
As Napoleon Dynamite, Jon Hader nails the nerd. Arrogant and unsympathetic, and capable of making the most upsetting noises with his mouth, he embodies the malformed inbetweeness of adolescence. Hailing from Preston, Idaho, Napoleon lives with his older brother Kip Dynamite (Ruell) and grandma (Martin), until she breaks her coccyx riding a dune buggy, meaning failed football-playing Uncle Rico (Gries) has to babysit the boys.
The husband and wife team of Jared and Jerusha Hess collaborated on the script with Jared assuming mantle of director. Preston was his hometown and the treatment of it here is slyly mocking though never cruel. The cultural bric-a-brac from three or four decades (glitter balls, puffy sleeves, internet chat rooms) drifts over mundane vistas of farmland. Preston is adrift in post-war kitsch, a place where Uncle Rico's moulded Burt Reynolds hairdo rubs up against hip-hop bling. Napoleon's ideas of self-worth are influenced by Dungeons & Dragons ("girls want boyfriends with skills") and he is a typical arty-inclined outsider, with his fantasy drawings of unicorns and mace-wielding heroines. It's like he has wandered straight from the D&D game in E.T. rather than the 21st century in which the film is seemingly set.
It is this mash-up of teen cultures that makes Napoleon Dynamite feel like an ironic fashion shoot for a cutting-edge style magazine. Combine this with the film's episodic, desultory plot and MTV's production credit and a cynic could write it off as an exercise in ironic geek chic. Hicks served up for the amusement of hipsters. Yet, if Napoleon Dynamite is never compelling, its diffident, heavy-lidded hero deserves to be as iconic for a new generation of ne'er do wells as Gummo and Slackers were to the last generation of losers.
The slow-burning plot grows out of the usual drama of American high school movies: who to take to the prom, who will be class president? Napoleon throws his lot in with the new boy from Mexico, Pedro (Ramirez). The boys form two points of a vague love triangle with Deb (Majorino), who is Napoleon's natural soul-mate, being artistically inclined and every bit as capable of mixing up teen gaucheness with self-possession.
That this love triangle never goes anywhere is typical of the film's monotone vibe, a shoulder-shrug in place of the usual histrionics and gross excesses of teen movies. This studied aimlessness is more an aesthetic effect than a heartfelt conviction, at times Napoleon Dynamite feels like a Diesel advert lifting from the stylistic mannerisms of American independent cinema. When the 'A-Team' theme tune is ironically dropped in, this otherwise charming debut teeters on the verge of trapping itself in an idea of cool prevalent in a trucker-cap wearing, Shoreditch ad agency.
For all its charm and its impeccable leads, Napoleon Dynamite is a modish exercise in anti-cool. Still, a strong debut for all its young talents.
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On Film4: 04 April 2015