Napoleon Dynamite and the Dangers of Trusting the Status Quo

Like many Weird Girls™, I had a difficult few years in middle school. As I’ve discussed, ad nauseum, I am not generally a fan of trends, or social interaction. Unfortunately, this is all that your peers are interested in when you are a 12-14 year old girl. After a disastrous time in eighth grade, I was determined to tone down the weird in high school. This meant that I would try to be ‘up on the trends’. Thus began my even more disastrous attempt to give into peer pressure. It lasted approximately eight months and when it was over, I promptly went back to my combat boots and my Enochian summoning rituals.

Occult leanings notwithstanding, I honestly believe one of the big reasons that my descent into normalcy ultimately proved futile is because of a movie that came out that fateful summer. That movie was Napoleon Dynamite. 

Napoleon Dynamite came out in June of 2004 and it was instantly a hit among people my age. All of my classmates loved it. All of my friends from other schools were constantly quoting it. It seemed like the sort of thing that I, as someone who was trying to ‘fit in’, should watch. Because I was 14 at the time, I had not yet learned the importance of Having Low Expectations. Had I done so, it is likely that I would have found the movie slightly more palatable. But, keep in mind, this had been billed to me as the Citizen Kane of comedy by practically everyone I knew. It was difficult to Have Low Expectations, even if my freshman self had understood what those were.

By this point, the phrase “A Freakin 12 Gauge what do you think?” was haunting my dreams, visions of tater-tots danced in my head, and I was getting really fucking sick of everyone referencing a movie that I hadn’t seen. Shortly after it was released to video, I rented it from Blockbuster (RIP). I remember settling down in front of the TV in our basement in eager anticipation. And then I began to watch the most tedious 95 minutes of my life unfold. I sat through every single minute of that trainwreck, and I did not smile or laugh a single time. Not once.

Not wanting to miss out on the zeitgeist of my generation, I immediately assumed that this must be the sort of movie that is best viewed with friends. Fortunately, I was having a sleepover that weekend with a friend of mine, which seemed as good a time as any to test my new hypothesis. My friend thought the movie was funny. I fell asleep after Napoleon verbally abuses his llama. Coincidentally, that is one of the biggest things I disliked the most about the movie: how weirdly combative Napoleon is. I get that he’s supposed to be the geeky underdog, but he’s neither sympathetic enough to be the hero nor charismatic enough to be the antihero. It’s entirely possible that this is the point of the movie and I am just not elevated enough to appreciate it. If that is the case, then I am fine staying down here at the intellectual equivalent of the Mariana Trench.

Originally, Napoleon Dynamite was billed as ‘awkward humor’. This was extremely popular during the early 2000s, which is probably due in equal parts to Paris Hilton and The Office. Admittedly, I am not typically a fan of awkward humor. I don’t usually like seeing people put in uncomfortable situations, unless those people have given me a reason to dislike them. But, I can understand the appeal of awkward humor. Arrested Development, for example, uses awkward humor in a lot of their early stuff (the character of Tobias comes to mind).

I also pride myself on being able to understand the popularity of something even if it is something that I don’t personally enjoy. It’s part of being an anthropologist. The popularity of Napoleon Dynamite confounds me on both a personal and a professional level; I honestly have no idea who would find it funny. Part of the joy of the humor in Arrested Development or The Office is that the awkward characters commit to their awkwardness. In contrast, the actors of Napoleon Dynamite have more commitment issues than Mickey Rooney. Each line is delivered like someone reading the menu at Denny’s to their elderly aunt. This is not how human beings, even the especially awkward ones, behave. “But Erica,” you may argue, “Aren’t you also a fan of David Lynch, and surrealism in general?” And yes, my astute little cucumber, you are correct. I love surrealism. But, part of the appeal of surrealism is that it is absurd. The most absurd thing about Napoleon Dynamite is that Bravo put it on their list of the 100 funniest films ever made.

A few years ago, once I had become a much more socially-adjusted version of myself, I reasoned that my hatred of Napoleon Dynamite might be because I had been an awkward teenager during my first and second viewings. At age 24, I reasoned that it was possible that my decade of maturity gave me some much-needed distance. So when I saw that Napoleon Dynamite was being aired on TV, I decided to give it another watch. Again, this is a movie that many people in their late 20s/early 30s still claim to love as adults. Clearly, I reasoned, I must be missing something. And yet, after sitting through another 95 minutes of chinless White guys mumbling about cage fighting, I can safely say that there is no amount of distance I can have from Napoleon Dynamite that will ever be sufficient.

I truly believe that Napoleon Dynamite is the worst thing to come out of Idaho. Although, that doesn’t really doesn’t say much, because I’m not sure what else has come out of Idaho, other than potatoes and a few lackluster serial killers. In 2005, the Idaho House passed a bill commending the creators of Napoleon Dynamite. This is apparently because various aspects of the movie (which the bill outlines in extensive detail) showcase cultural and economic aspects of the state. I think this might just be the biggest insult to Idaho that I’ve ever heard.

I will say this for Napoleon Dynamite: it hit me at an important time in my life and taught me a few valuable lessons. The most notable of these is that just because something is popular, it doesn’t mean that it’s any good. During those eight months that I actually cared about the opinions of my peers, I miscalculated quite a few things. Most notably was how terrible the average 14-year old’s taste is. In some ways, I should actually thank Napoleon Dynamite for turning me into the self-possessed nonconformist that I am today. But I will not, because it is still a terrible movie.


  1. i grew up mormon and so did jon heder. when my friend’s brother’s friend’s little sister got married, of course my friend’s brother was invited. the marriage ceremony happened in a mormon temple, in a ceremony that’s very extremely serious. its also exclusive, mormons only and only mormons who get special permission from the church to go there. after the ceremony, you retire to a special room in the temple that’s for quiet contemplation and prayer and that’s where my friend’s brother saw Him. jon heder. it turns out jon heder is related to the groom, making him my friend’s brother’s friend’s sister’s in-law. my friend’s brother immediately started bugging out. “napoleon flippin dynamite is here!” after minutes of trying to figure out if it was okay to accost a celebrity in the celestial room, he decided “screw it” and ran over to him. introduced himself, started shaking his hand, talking about how big a fan of nappy d he was, “marking” out. jon heder was reportedly very, very pleasant and took my friend’s brother violating the sanctity of the celestial room in stride. on the drive back home however, my friend’s brother’s friend’s dad, a VERY FAMOUS football player, started reaming him out, screaming at him about how inappropriate it was to fuss over a celeb in the temple. that same VERY FAMOUS football once yelled at some kids in my presence and it was one of the scariest things ive never seen, if i was my friend’s brother i would have died on the spot, but it would have been worth it to meet jon heder. that’s my jon heder story.

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