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Michael E. Bailey on the Pauline Aliens of Preston, Idaho
Napoleon Dynamite entered American movie theaters in 2004, having earlier garnered unexpected buzz at the Cannes Film Festival, and within a short time became a cultural phenomenon. Two years after its release, the comedy remains a perennial student film favorite as measured by the all-authoritative standard for college campus life, FaceBook, as well as by the ubiquity of “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts.
It follows the struggles of young Napoleon Dynamite, a Preston, Idaho teenager whose social ineptness at high school compounds the misery and loneliness of his wretched home life. An orphan, his family consists of his guardian grandmother, a short-tempered woman who lives a mysterious double life of fun on the sand dunes, and Kip, his unemployed 32-year-old stay-at-home brother, whose chief activity is chatting for hours “with babes” on-line.
Hope enters Napoleon’s life when he befriends new classmate Pedro, an immigrant from Juarez, Mexico, and Deb, a girl who meets him while selling glamour shots door-to-door. The plot, insofar as the movie can be said to have a plot, revolves around their awkward but developing friendship as they campaign for Pedro’s improbable candidacy for school president.
Complicating matters is the overbearing Uncle Rico, who serves as guardian to Napoleon and Kip(!) when their grandmother is injured in a bizarre dune buggy accident. Uncle Rico and Napoleon clash immediately and continuously, and Uncle Rico does not hesitate to humiliate Napoleon in front of his new friends. Home is no refuge for Napoleon, and Uncle Rico’s actions threaten to undermine his friendships and only source of dignity.
At first glance, the movie’s appeal to young people is no surprise; after all, it’s a teen movie with lots of physical humor and distinctly defined characters with highly imitable voices. Yet it stays remarkably clear of most teen-movie props and clichés: It is virtually free of profanity—Napoleon says “Gosh!” and “Dang it”—and it features neither female nudity nor a randy male trying to lose it or have sex with pies.
Napoleon Dynamite is a funny teen movie, but its refusal to play by the rules of most teen movies indicates that it is not, well, just another teen movie. Certainly the bookends of the movie, which show Napoleon on two forms of transportation, suggest that something important has happened to him in between.
In the movie’s opening scene, a sullen and sighing Napoleon, wearing a wild stallion t-shirt, boards a school bus with children half his age and works his way to the back. In the movie’s closing sequence, Napoleon rides a “wild honeymoon stallion” to his brother’s wedding, looking half-like another famous Napoleon.
At the risk of elaborately describing the clothes of a perfectly naked emperor, I think that the underlying theme of Napoleon Dynamite is (though the movie was made by Mormons) consistent with the moral anthro-pology of Christianity: to show us how we become genuinely human.
The point of the movie seems to be this: “Flying solo,” that is, the individualistic pursuit of one’s own happiness apart from the good of others, culminates in misery, and the only way to grow as a human, or even to become human, is through a thick community of support, responsibility, and love. Playing by oneself, as Napoleon is wont to do at the tetherball pole, is unrewarding and pitiful.
The “Decroded” Heart
Since Napoleon Dynamite may well be the most quoted movie in recent years, it seems fitting to elaborate upon three key lines that compactly reveal its meaning. Napoleon utters the first to buoy up his friend Pedro before he gives a campaign speech to the student body. He says: “Pedro, just listen to your heart. That’s what I do.”
Napoleon’s life is such a study in frustration and stunted hopes that it is difficult to believe that he actually follows his heart. But follow his heart he does. Consider the opening lines of the movie. Napoleon plops down on the last seat of the school bus and a boy less than half his age asks him, “What are you going to do today, Napoleon?” To which he responds peevishly, “Whatever I feel like I want to do. Gosh!” And then he proceeds to do exactly what he wants—though he rarely gets what he wants—for the rest of the movie.
But Napoleon is still miserable. What does it matter to follow one’s own heart when one’s heart is small and petty or, to use a favorite word of Napoleon’s, “decroded” (i.e., decayed and corroded)? Thus the film reveals a radical deficiency of individualism: Following your heart does not bring you happiness.
What if our pursuit of our heart’s every desire causes our hearts, like the Grinch’s, to become two sizes too small? What if our feverish pursuit of individual happiness causes us to neglect the communities that, in reality, make us happy? What if, like Napoleon, in our isolation or in our broken communities we have little chance of ever realizing our potential even when we follow our hearts?
Napoleon throws out of the bus window a doll-sized action hero attached to a string. I do not think it much of a stretch to conclude that this doll represents Napoleon. For the greater part of his life, he has been strung and bounced along the road of life face down in the dirt. Life is largely something that happens to Napoleon.
Napoleon is, in effect, the anti-Ferris Bueller. He doesn’t want to have fun so much as simply to survive. He has no friends (at least at first), he gets bullied at school, and he is scared of chickens. In his fantasy life, in contrast, he is a superhero who shoots wolverines, joins gangs who want him for his skills, and forges alliances with wizards and our “underwater ally,” the Loch Ness Monster.
Seek happiness all you want, the movie seems to suggest, but if your heart is decroded, you will still be miserable, a man in body, perhaps, but still just an unhappy boy on the school bus.
No Man Should Be an Island
The absence of Napoleon’s parents is the key to unlocking the underlying serious message of the movie. The threat of social isolation, of loneliness—of being left behind—looms constantly in the film. Virtually every time the filmmakers show a house, it stands by itself, isolated.
Apart from a few school sequences, there are perhaps ninety seconds in the film that show what could be described as a neighborhood or community. This is a movie of vast empty fields, lonely playgrounds, and isolated houses. In one of the film’s few visually arresting scenes, Napoleon, who has been abandoned by his Uncle Rico and is late for the school dance, is shown running to town on an open road that cuts through an immense and remote valley. The scenery mirrors Napoleon’s life.
Certainly the filmmakers go out of their way to show how Napoleon is a misfit. Another way of saying this—a Pauline way of saying this—is that Napoleon is an alien, that is, he is alienated from the world in which he lives. He is not at home in Preston, Idaho. To make sure we don’t miss the point, in the credits sequence the first item taken out of Napoleon’s wallet is a card with his name on it and a picture of—what else?—an alien.
The film’s other characters are also ill at ease in the world. Napoleon’s friend Deb is a very sweet but notably plain girl who runs a glamour studio. Pedro is literally an alien, an immigrant, living in a puzzling new land. But at least he is comfortable in the world of reality, unlike Napoleon’s brother Kip, who lives in the Internet world of chat-rooms and on-line dating.
Uncle Rico is hilariously unerotic about the present yet hopelessly romantic about the past. One of the more subtle jokes in the film is that Uncle Rico attempts to time-travel back to 1982, when the town is still stuck in 1982, judging by the music and fashion styles of the place. His attitude about the present is revealed in this line: “We can’t afford the fun pack.”
The film follows Thomas Hobbes in suggesting that life without community is isolated, nasty, brutish, and possibly even short. But it also suggests that life in community is possible, if difficult. Even in light of alienation, the film ends hopefully, even cheerfully. Just as Pedro predicts. In his campaign speech for school president, Pedro had concluded by saying, “If you vote for me, all of your wildest dreams will come true.”
This is the second key line of the film. The moviemakers seem to be saying through Pedro that if this kid can become class president, then anyone’s wildest dreams really can come true. But here’s the rub: Pedro’s dreams cannot come true without the support of the community. Through Pedro, the filmmakers call on the community to support him and, indirectly, one another.
The movie teaches us that friendship and community, like God’s grace, can come when least expected and in the least expected manner. Several times in the movie, we see Napoleon, like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, being rescued by the kindness of strangers. Recall Napoleon on that isolated road, running back to town to meet his date for the dance. Abandoned by his uncle, Napoleon is given a lift and thereby saved from his predicament by strangers, Pedro’s tough-cut cousins.
Pedro himself is an outsider to the community, whose friendship emboldens Napoleon and gives him new direction and purpose. Deb offers him an unexpected source of friendship and caring that is otherwise missing in his life. The individuals who should have been his bulwark and support—his brother, his Uncle Rico, and his grandmother—fail him completely, so Napoleon builds a kind of family with Pedro and Deb.
Not by Bread Alone
Food plays a weirdly prominent role in this movie. Scarcely five minutes roll by without some reference to or shot of food or drink. In the cafeteria, Napoleon stores up tater tots like a squirrel. Nachos, hot dogs, eggs, cake, “danged kesadillas” (pronounced by Napoleon’s grandmother “case-a-dill-a”), steak, fruit, bleached milk, “chimini changas,” and delicious bass all make appearances.
The characters are clearly starving. But what are they hungry for? Security? Respect? Love? Or just food? The movie credits begin by identifying characters through plates of food, a visual metaphor playing off the phrase, “You are what you eat.”
But is that true, are we just the stuff we eat? Or do we live by something more than bread alone? Is life nothing more than keeping the body free from pain and death for as long as possible?
Scripture says that he who wishes to save his life will lose it, and he who is willing to lose it for God’s sake will find it. The movie confirms this view. Napoleon subjects himself to near-certain humiliation by performing an elaborate (and comical) dance in front of the student body for the sake of Pedro’s election campaign. That the students go wild for his performance should not cause us to overlook his incredible daring.
Napoleon’s dance is an act of love. That the movie wraps up in a lovely package of warmth and hope immediately following Napoleon’s dance reveals the central message of the story: We are made complete only by first becoming vulnerable for the sake of love. No one is beyond love’s redemptive power.
Kip utters the third important line of the movie, when he says of his now in-the-flesh love: “Lafawnduh is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m a hundred percent positive she’s my soul mate.” Lafawnduh, met on-line, is a woman who arrives in Kip’s life from Detroit, sight unseen, of unknown history and of questionable profession. She is black. After meeting her, Kip, who is unquestionably the single whitest character in the history of film, wears bling and works on his street moves for her.
From initial appearances, the relationship is ill-fitted if not just plain nuts. But who doesn’t believe that he is better off with Lafawnduh? Any real human lover for Kip is better for his soul—that is, makes for a better soul mate—than the relationship he had with his beloved technology. Kip’s virtual life was pathetic. His new life is weird and unorthodox but, by comparison, a ride into the sunset.
Napoleon Dynamite is a humorous but touching critique of the inevitable loneliness and meaninglessness of individualism when it is stripped of the context of genuine community. Its message is consistent with a Christian moral anthropology, that human beings are not intended to “fly solo,” but made to live in a community marked by the vulnerability and sacrifice of love.
The movie ends in a quietly triumphant celebration of love and friendship. Pedro has won the presidency. Kip marries Lafawnduh. Uncle Rico is possibly united with his girlfriend. And Napoleon is no longer playing tetherball by himself, but is now playing with Deb, who is looking lovely and womanly. One can imagine them growing up to live happily together.
As Napoleon would say, “ Lucky!”
Michael E. Bailey is Associate Professor of Government at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia. He serves as Deacon at First Presbyterian Church in Rome, Georgia, and is married and has three daughters.