'Napoleon Dynamite' Hip Without Resorting To Sex And Shock, By Kurt Loder

No gross-outs, no boozing, no sex, no drugs, not even any rock and roll, really. And it's hilarious.

"Napoleon Dynamite" is a high-school comedy with no gross-outs, no boozing, no sex, no drugs, not even any rock and roll, really. And it's hilarious.

The setting is Preston, Idaho, a blank-looking farm-country burg of some 4,000 people. An enormous blue sky rears up over the rural landscape, which is as flat and uneventful as a pool table. Here Napoleon Dynamite lives his largely marginal life.

Napoleon resembles an unusually tall stick insect, with red, Brillo-pad hair up above and fiercely anachronistic moon boots down below. He has the slightly dazed presence of someone who's been struck over the head with a blunt object: His eyes rarely lift from the floor or open beyond squint level and his mouth hangs ajar in classic doofus fashion. In the eternal high school hierarchy of cool at his own school, Preston High, Napoleon is consigned to the popularity basement along with such other social bottom-feeders as his only friend, Pedro, the near-comatose but good-natured owner of a rockin' Sledgehammer BMX bike, and the tightly wound Deb, an aspiring glamour photographer who raises college-tuition money by selling Boondoggle key chains door-to-door.

In the eyes of Preston High's popular elite — crew-cut guys with lockjaw grins and big-eyed girls with beauty-pageant smiles — Napoleon and Pedro and Deb are of course total losers. The three of them, however, don't acknowledge this scorn; in fact, they seem oblivious to the existence of the school's ruling clique. They live in their own, very particular world. Napoleon doesn't have a girlfriend, but he doesn't therefore think of himself as a gormless dork. No, he says, "Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills. You know, like nunchuk skills ... bow-hunting skills ... computer-hacking skills." So he's working on developing at least one really great skill, and he figures that should solve the problem.

Napoleon and his even nerdier older brother, Kip, live with their rambunctious grandmother. When she gets sidelined by a dune-buggy accident, the boys' Uncle Rico comes to keep an eye on them (even though Kip — who spends most of his days in Internet chat rooms looking for love — is 32 years old). To make some money, Rico — who is mentally stuck in the year 1982, when he was a high-school football hotshot — and Kip start up a minibusiness selling plastic kitchenware door-to-door. (Buy a complete set and you get — for some reason — a free model sailing ship thrown in.) Shamed by his own lack of income, Napoleon takes a job on a chicken farm, where the daily lunch break consists of egg sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs and a refreshing drink made entirely of lightly stirred egg yolks.

Meanwhile, a school dance is coming up — always a crisis time for the uncool. And an election for student-body president, too, in which Pedro decides to challenge the most popular girl in school, the flagrantly blonde Summer Wheatley. (Campaign slogan: "With me, it will be summer all year round.") You must see what happens. Must.

"Napoleon Dynamite" is rich in plot adornments. There's the time-travel machine Uncle Rico buys online for transport back to 1982 (it doesn't work real well); the Happy Hands Club's sign-language songfest; a black pet llama out of nowhere; and a muscle-headed martial-arts instructor named Rex, who teaches something called Rex Kwon Do and whose curiously hulking wife, Starla, looks like she could take him easy, best out of three falls. Oh, and Napoleon also gets to strut his remarkable milk-judging skills, which is kind of interesting.

Part of what makes "Napoleon Dynamite" such a funny movie is its stasis: The camera rarely moves, and the main characters, Napoleon and Pedro, express themselves with all the oomph of a corporate voice-mail menu. This forces the viewer to focus on small things — wry line readings, oddments of décor, character reactions that are studies in near-subterranean subtlety. The film is engaging at every tiny turn.

The radiant sweetness of "Napoleon Dynamite" — its absence of cynicism and ridicule and de rigueur profanity — may have something to do with the fact that the people who made it are mostly Mormons: First-time feature director Jared Hess (who cowrote the script with his wife, Jerusha), natural-born-star Jon Heder (who gives a one-of-a-kind wonderful performance as Napoleon) and Aaron Ruell, who plays the limply lovable Kip Dynamite, were all classmates at the Mormon-run Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Whether or not the film's becoming reticence — its disinclination to shock or hurt — is rooted in religious scruple, it's an edifying demonstration of how hip — how almost avant-garde — a movie can be without resorting to such shopworn strategies. What a revelation.

"Napoleon Dynamite" is being distributed in part by MTV Films, so you don't have to take my word for it. But take my word for it anyway: This is the funniest movie of the year, to date at least. It's a cult classic for sure, and could be a national smash, if word gets out. Go see it. Start spreading that word.

Kurt Loder

Movie & TV Awards 2018