Thursday, July 28, 2005

Pedro offers you his protection -- The Napoleon Dynamite Phenomenon

While driving back from our vacation, we stopped at a gas station in the upstate of South Carolina. And there in that gas station, while I waited to pay for my three varieties of Twix bars, I saw the display for Napoleon Dynamite merchandise. This was the last place I expected to be able to purchase keychains, stickers and wall mounts featuring the hero of this humble hit film. And yet there were all the “Vote for Pedro” and “Lyger: bred for its skills in magic” trinkets I cared to see.

Napoleon is something of a phenomenon: They’re playing sound bytes from the film at Reds games – people are putting bumper stickers on their car – some preachers are even slipping in obscure references into their sermons. What is it about this odd, quiet little film that appeals so much?

I won’t presume an academic treatise on why Napoleon appeals to so many – that would essentially prove that I just didn’t get it. Instead, I’ll simply tell you why I liked the movie. Bear in mind that about half way through the film, I thought “This is the most idiotic feature I’ve ever rented” – there seemed to be no action, little plot. I didn’t really find the characters all that engaging at first.

And then I realized that this was a teen movie, and the actors actually looked like teenagers, as opposed to the hyper-sexed refugees from Hef’s mansion that usually populate teen comedies. The cheerleaders actually looked like high school cheerleaders. Neither was there any of the typical zany hijinks and outsmarting of the doofus adults that have become stock and trade of most teen comedies. How about the obligatory coming of age sex scene between the male and female leads? Nope – another convention out the window.

Suddenly all the quirkiness made sense – the pet llama, the odd 80’s fashion statements, the penchant for tater tots and quesadillas, the love of tetherball as a pastime. What we had here was not a collection of stock characters, but of sketches of individuals who could actually be real – this was a film that looked at human life, with its disappointments and frustrations and weirdness and it affirmed the dignity of the oddballs. Those of us who were not the pretty boys in school suddenly found a hero we could identify with.

There’s more to tell and more to like, but I’m interested in your thoughts –

Soli Deo Gloria