High school sociologists, in their ongoing quest to classify every subcategory of nerd, dweeb and tool, will discover a new kind of dorky cool in "Napoleon Dynamite." This indie comedy's hero, played with hilarious spasticity by first-time actor Jon Heder, is a 17-year-old living in rural Idaho. He may spend most of his time drawing fanciful lion/tiger hybrids in the margins of his notebooks and winning milk-tasting contests at county fairs, but he burns with the frustration and rage of a punk rocker.
One of the few non-documentary hits at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Napoleon Dynamite" — based on a Brigham Young University undergraduate short film and shot for a shoestring budget of $200,000 — was acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures for $4 million. Now playing in New York and Los Angeles, it'll be onscreen nationally by mid-July.
"Sometimes the world really is against Napoleon," said Jared Hess, 24, who directed the movie and cowrote it with his wife, Jerusha Hess, 23. "But a lot of his problems are really just weird, funny things and him getting mad and going, 'Idiots!' "
Put together, that weird, funny stuff makes a painfully funny portrait of adolescent life. Many of those eccentric details (the llama, the martial-arts obsession, the uncle's online purchase of a time machine) came straight from the experiences of director Hess' family and friends, many of whom live in Preston, Idaho, a small farming town with about 4,500 people and one stoplight.
"My brothers were very competitive and always on the defensive," said Hess, who is the oldest of six boys, all born two years apart. "Even when you give them a compliment, like, 'Hey, pretty good shot you made,' it'll be, 'Shut up! I already know that!' That was always very entertaining to me."
Though the Hesses were not commercial farmers, their mother kept four llamas for her own amusement. One is featured in the movie and renamed Tina because, Hess says, "animals who are given girls' names end up very spoiled. For a while, [my mother] had a few goats. She told my dad, 'Tom, we are going to save a fortune on milk if we use this goat's milk for the boys. And my brothers were like, 'This is sick. This milk tastes like hay.' They boycotted cereal. Finally she went, 'They're not getting their calcium, let's go back to regular milk from the store.' "
Though Hess is a small-town guy, he's seen a lot of the world. Born in the Southwest, his family lived in Kansas, Texas and London before settling in Preston (a few hours' drive due north of Salt Lake City) when he was a sophomore in high school. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, he did two years as a Mormon missionary, first in Venezuela and then in Chicago, where he met "an old Italian-American gentleman who introduced himself as Napoleon Dynamite. I thought, that is the best name. That is going to be the name of my first movie." (Whether that elderly Chicagoan was an Elvis Costello fan is anybody's guess; "Napoleon Dynamite" is a pseudonym that the musician used around 1986. Hess hadn't heard that until late in the making of his movie.)
At Brigham Young University, Hess made another important connection: He met his wife-to-be, Jerusha, who he says has made him a better writer. "We get into arguments all the time," he said. "We are very different creatively. She'll be like, 'Jared, you think all my ideas suck.' I'll go, 'No!' Then I'll be sleeping on the couch that night. With a partner, you don't settle for mediocre."
One of their classmates, a 2D-animation student named Jon Heder, turned out to be perfect as the star of a comic short that became the precursor to "Napoleon." Though Heder wasn't an actor, he shared Hess' sense of humor and was completely unembarrassable as a performer. "Jerusha said, 'You know what this guy really needs? A perm. A frizzy, frizzy perm,' " Hess said. "Throw some moon boots on him, and there you have it. He went for it."
Heder, who has straight hair, a huge smile, and is actually pretty good-looking out of costume, was more than willing to embrace his inner dweeb. "Come on! Even the popular girl is a dork," Heder said. "The football star is, too. Most high school students who see this movie will recognize themselves in Napoleon. Nobody is mature. Everybody is clueless to some degree."
Now 26, married, and considering a future as an actor and an animation artist, Heder doesn't mind being recognized as Napoleon. There's even talk of a TV series, which cracks up both Heder and Hess. "I'm kind of ready to move on," said Hess, who has just directed two television commercials and bought a house in Salt Lake.
One thing Hess won't be doing is reading his reviews — he was annoyed by an early one that suggested the movie was making fun of heartland Americans. Asked about it, the director shows some fire. "Hey, we are from middle America, and these are our lives. That doesn't mean things aren't funny," Hess said. "I wonder if a remark like that is a reflection of a reviewer's own condescension. I don't feel like we are being too sophisticated. You look back at high school, no matter where you are from, and it is a level playing field. Everyone is awkward."
by Justine Elias
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