For the serious tourist, it is disappointing to pass through a major historic site without being aware of it. I had that experience in Idaho two years ago. My host merely slowed the Dodge Charger through Preston (pop 5000), with its farm-machinery sheds and neat homes with nary a front or side fence – unlike Aussie home-owners who barricade their blocks. I asked, “Why no fences?” and he said, “Because we own guns”.
We’d come 27 miles north from Logan, Utah, to lunch on fried shrimp, twice-baked potatoes and honey-buttered scones at the Deer Cliff Inn, which sits by the Cub River canyon. Opposite is a cliff with an 80deg slope. The Shoshone, until virtually wiped out in the Bear River Massacre nearby (1863), used to stampede deer herds over the cliff, heedless of environmental impacts.
Last week my host, a Perth classmate who went native in Utah, emailed me and mentioned that he’d not given me a “Napoleon Dynamite” tour of landmarks in Preston, the setting for the film of 2004. I hadn’t seen the flick but the very next day I was in an op shop to buy toys, and there on an otherwise empty shelf was the DVD, price $2. It could not have been coincidence.
I have since watched it three times and according to my spouse, have developed an unhealthy obsession with mega-awkward teen Napoleon, his weedy brother, Kip (32), Kip’s unlikely black lover LaFawnduh and Tina the family’s llama.
The houses, farms and especially Preston High School are now sacred sites for Napoleon Dynamitetragics, attracting pilgrims from as far afield as Korea and New Zealand. Even Tina has her cult, though cynics claim the original llama has passed and visitors are patting a look-alike.
The cult film cost a paltry $US400,000 to make during 23 days shooting. That included a $US1000 salary for the star, Jon Heder. It made $US 40million at the box-office, although it’s so off-beat that none of Hollywood marketers’ algorithms could cope with it. Writer-director Jared Hess himself went to Preston High. He parceled all the weirdness of his adolescent world into the film. The plot is typical revenge-of-the-nerds, but the underwhelming characters are quirky bordering on surreal. There is no profanity, no sex, and no grossness. The Mormon ambience is obvious only to initiates. Preston also happens to be the second-most Republican-voting town (93%) in the US.
Much of the sly comedy can slip by un-noticed. You will also learn new meanings of boondoggle (in Idaho, plaited nylon keyring add-ons) and Tater-Tots (dice-sized cubes of potato, hash-brown style). The politically-correct class claim the film mocks the disabled and Mexicans. Napoleon Dynamite, as his name doesn’t suggest, is a 16-year-old carrot-topped misfit. His jaw sags, his eyes stay half-shut and he can barely manage a sentence. He pals up with a sluggish exchange student, Pedro from Juarez, with even less vocabulary and animation. One exchange goes:
Napoleon: How long did you take to grow that moustache?
Pedro: A couple of days.
The film is set in 2004 but abounds in 1980s anachronisms such as VCR players. For some reason Napoleon has no parents but is looked after by his grannie, Carlinda, who has trysts with boyfriends on quad-bike outings. Napoleon’s brother, Kip, is a 5ft, live-at-home weakling who is still getting his teeth straightened. Kip says, “Napoleon, don’t be jealous ’cause I’ve been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I’m training to become a cage fighter.”
Napoleon invites regular buffetings from class bullies.
[Sports jock] Don: Hey, Napoleon. What did you do last summer again?
Napoleon: I told you! I spent it with my uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines! [similar to a small bear].
Don: Did you shoot any?
Napoleon: Yeah, like, fifty of them! They were surrounding my cousin! What the heck would you do in a situation like that?
Don: What kind of gun did you use?
Napoleon: A friggin’ twelve gauge, what do you think?
In grandma’s absence (dune buggy pile-up), middle-aged Uncle Rico minds the pair. Rico’s a door-to-door con-man selling plastic-ware and breast enhancement kits. Nostalgic for his glory days at school football, he buys a time-machine kit on-line, which Napoleon and Kip try out. Napoleon just gets electric shocks and exclaims, “It’s a piece of crap, it doesn’t work!” as if any other verdict were possible. In a typically weird twist, the pathetic Kip invites his Detroit chatroom girlfriend, LaFawnduh, to Preston by bus. She turns out to be a tall, lascivious-looking black woman (think Hugh Grant’s kerbside carnal consultant, Divine Brown), but in fact she’s a nice gal and genuinely smitten with Kip.
The outdoor marriage takes place after the film’s closing credits – I overlooked it first time around – when Napoleon gallops to the ceremony on what he claims is “a wild honeymoon stallion” he has tamed. The odd couple piggybacks into the sunset.
Pedro tells Napoleon he has a talent for sketching warriors and ‘ligers’ – a fantasy lion/tiger hybrid. Napoleon gives attractive classmate Trisha a horrifically crude portrait, with the promise, “There’s a lot more where that came from, if you’ll go to the dance with me.” Trisha’s expression says it all.
The sullen Napoleon does manage to pair with gauche classmate, Deb, after despairing of success: “I don’t even have any good skills. You know like nunchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, computer-hacking skills. Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills!”
His pick-up line to Deb, sipping milk, goes: “I see you’re drinking 1%. Is that ’cause you think you’re fat? ‘Cause you’re not. You could totally be drinking whole if you wanted to.”
In one vignette of Preston’s bucolic life, Napoleon takes a vacation job in an 8000-chook shed. “Do the chickens have large talons?” he asks owner Lyle, in real life Dave Critchlow, who steals many scenes with his part-paralysed face and personally-improvised lines.[i] At one point Lyle is preparing to shoot an attractive cow front-on (as farmers do). Just in time, the passing school bus blocks our view, but exposes it instead to the horrified kids. Lyle caters to his teen workers, exhausted from feathery exertions, with a lunch of eggs, egg sandwiches and egg drink.
The film is not much about nothing much, but for entertainment, it sure beats Australian politics.
Tony Thomas’s new book That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, can be bought here.
[i] Officiating at Kip’s wedding, Lyle ad libs: “When an argument arises, if you go outside and take a nice walk, you’ll calm down and then you can come back and it won’t be an argument. And you’ll find that helps your health. All that fresh air and exercise will do you a lot of good.”