Looking back on my life, I have always enjoyed movies. A lot of who I am and what I enjoy is based on the movies I love. A few weeks ago, on Facebook I was invited by a friend to list every day one of my favorite movies, ranking them from 10 to 1. It was hard to narrow the movies I love down to just ten, and then to put them in any kind of order. However, it was also fun to take a look back at the movies I have loved and why. I thought it would be fun to review each of the movies on my list on my podcast and on my blog. Napoleon Dynamite was my number 10.
When Napoleon Dynamite hit the scene 14 years ago. In fact, the wide release date was June 11, 2004, so almost exactly 14 years ago to the day. Nobody really knew what to think of this quirky comedy that felt like an independent film (it was) but caught on like a mainstream comedy. It was weird, and strange and somehow totally enjoyable. Plus, it was the beginning of what could have been the golden age of Mormon cinema. A golden age that never came. More on that later.
Napoleon Dynamite follows the adventures of the titular character as he goes awkwardly through high school. That’s the basic plotline. He makes a friend in Pedro, but mostly he doesn’t really fit in with the in crowd. He doesn’t really try to either. The story follows him through his daily routines of school, coming home to his brother Kip and helping his friend Pedro ask a girl to the dance and help him run for student body office.
There’s not a lot more to the plot than this. It is basically what high school was for a lot of us. I always felt really awkward, and although I had a small group of good friends, I never really fit in with the main crowds, the “in” crowd. And the friends I did have took a lot of hard work on my part. And then my family moved when I was a senior and I had to start all over. So, yeah, high school kind of sucked.
Except, like Napoleon, it didn’t. In the end we discover that being yourself is more important than fitting in. I may not have ever been popular, but I had friends who allowed me to be myself. They helped me to see that who I was mattered. Similarly, Pedro and Deb help Napoleon see the same thing.
The script for Napoleon Dynamite was written by Jared and Jerusha Hess, a husband and wife film making team. They were BYU students, and a lot of this film feels like a film school movie. It feels raw and rough and low-budget. And that is part of why I love it. It fits with the characters, who are all bizarre and quirky in their own ways. It fits with the story. High School feels rough and raw and for me it was always low-budget.
The characters are all pretty well-developed throughout the film by the things they do. We don’t get any back story for any of them.
Where are Napoleon and Kip’s parents? Doesn’t really matter.
Why did Pedro and his family move to Preston, ID? Not important.
Who is Uncle Rico? He’s just that weird uncle we all have.
The back story, though, isn’t really necessary. What we get is a little snapshot of each of these characters’ lives, a sliver of their time here on Earth. That’s it, and it works. The film doesn’t get bogged down in a lot of exposition. We know what we need to know. And it works, at least for me. And although Napoleon is the main character, going through his own journey of self discovery, all of the other characters seem to be as well. Uncle Rico trying to find his life post high school football glory, Kip on his journey of love, Pedro trying to figure out his place in his new surroundings, etc.
One of the things that I love about this movie, is beyond the quirky humor, this is a positive movie with a positive message. Whoever you are, you’re probably weird, but be the best weird you that you can be. Love who you love. Do what you do. Just be you, and be proud of you. That is the core of what this movie is.
This is a film driven by the characters, and Napoleon is at the core. He is all of us at our most awkward, to a point where you almost feel uncomfortable for him. At least at first. As time goes on, and you discover that he is comfortable with who he is, you get more comfortable for him. He is awkward, but he’s not trying to not be awkward. He is simply who he is. And who he is is pretty fantastic.
Supporting Napoleon are his two friends, Pedro and Deb. Pedro is awkward because he is fitting in with a whole new culture. This is shown as he creates a pinata of his opponent in the student body race, and is told that’s not appropriate. Deb is the real heart of the trio, though. She really is the only one who is totally comfortable in her skin the whole time. And that makes her cool.
Uncle Rico is that guy who is totally stuck in high school and his glory days. He takes it to the extreme, even dressing the way he probably did in high school. The moment when he is sitting on the porch, talking about how if he had been put in the game, his team would have won state, is funny. He says he could throw the ball over a set of mountains, miles away. It absurd. It’s sad at the same time. He’s just stuck.
Kip is the guy who is totally focused on his dreams. That would be sad, but in the end, he is the guy who is achieving his dreams. He might seem like the sorry guy who is destined to be in grandma’s basement for the rest of his life, chatting with people online all day. The reality is, though, he knows what he wants, and he goes out and gets it, in the end marrying the love of his life.
That’s what I love about this movie. These characters are all so strange, but somehow we can identify with them at some level, and each of them overcome a lot of their struggles. The moment Napoleon goes on stage and dances, essentially breaking out of his shell, is amazing. He wins over the school, and wins the election for Pedro. But more importantly, after ward, he takes the opportunity after to go and cement things with Deb.
As I mentioned earlier, this could have been the film that ushered in a new golden age of Mormon Cinema. A golden age that never really happened. Up to this point, the Mormon movies consisted of The Singles Ward or the RM, films that were so over the top and exaggerated, they were almost unwatchable. Yes, you might laugh at yourself the first time you see the films, but if you watch the movies again, they’re just bad.
Or there were the actual Church films like Legacy, which were great when your seminary teacher decided to show them in class, but they were also church movies. They weren’t bad for what they were, but they didn’t show in theaters or anything like that.
Napoleon was different. It was a Mormon made movie, that wasn’t over the top or in your face about it. The signs are there. The language is minimal, it’s free of overly sexual themes, there’s no gratuitous violence. It’s clean and appropriate for all ages and all audiences. But you don’t feel like it is. If that makes sense. It sneaks that cleanliness in, and tricks audiences into enjoying a wholesome film, that they think is hip and cool.
This is what Mormon made films could have become, but unfortunately, this, and to a lesser degree, Nacho Libre, were all we got. It’s really too bad. There are plenty of Mormons making films out there, or involved in the filmmaking process. But it is rare to see a film like Napoleon Dynamite that scores big with the mainstream audience, but is still completely appropriate. That’s what this film did.
This movie is in my top ten, so obviously, I liked it a lot. It would be hard for me to give any of the films on my top ten anything less than five Beardies because I love them so much. Part of that is nostalgia, and I can also admit that it is almost impossible for me to be objective about these films in any way. I know that, so take my ranking for what it’s worth. This film is fun, it’s one I can watch over and over again. It’s one I have shown my kids and they love it. It has held up well over the last 14 years, and i think that is pretty impressive.