From out of the west - specifically the small town of Preston, Idaho - comes a charming little film that could be the sleeper hit of the summer. It's called "Napoleon Dynamite," which is the name of its leading character, a gangly, uncoordinated, mouth-breathing high-school nerd who spends much of his school time being slammed against his locker by the jocks, plays tetherball by himself in P.E., and is saddled with the most disfunctional family in ages. But don't feel sorry for him; he is resilient, has only contempt for his abusers, and is unruffled by his many setbacks. He is played - inhabited, really - with astounding virtuosity by Jon Heder, an actor whose only previous work was as the lead in a short film by "Napoleon Dynamite"s director Jared Hess.
Hess and his wife Jerusha have written a high-school comedy that owes little or nothing to the genre; it's like a comic version of Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse." Napoleon lives with his grandmother and his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who spends his days in chatrooms on the internet, looking for the perfect mate. But when his grandmother is injured in a dune buggy accident their uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to live with them. Rico is a piece of work; he drives an ancient camper-van and sells plastic kitchenware door to door, which in Preston means going miles between customers; but he lives in the memory of 1982, when he quarterbacked Preston High nearly to the state championship. He even buys a time machine on the internet so that he can go back and try to undo the mistakes he made before the coach took him out of the game.
Napoleon, who has never in his life initiated a conversation with a girl, somehow finds a friend in Deb (Tina Majorino), a classmate who takes studio photographs and also sells her own hand-made key chains. His only other friend is the school's one Latino student, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), whom he persuades to run for student body president against the most popular girl in school. How the campaign turns out, and how Napoleon, the gorky dork, contributes to it by turning into a swan for a moment, is the delicious resolution of the film.
This is a film of moments, all well conceived, directed and acted: the Hesses have written a dozen or more perceptive and witty sequences, Jared as director knows when to cut and when to let a scene go on, and none of his actors ever relax their control over their characters. Whenever we're led to expect something, Hess gives us something better, as when Kip's search for a soul mate is rewarded in a way that's only barely tipped off in advance; or the way in which Napoleon salvages Pedro's campaign.
This is a first film, made on what was obviously a minuscule budget, with actors willing to take a great chance on a new director; and the delight of the film is that it works, that it will help their careers, and that it gives us in the audience a nice summer jolt. You can't ask for much more than that.