I was a cinephile long before I knew what a cinephile was. Although a lot of my “film story” is rooted in my early childhood days of watching lots of old movies, it’s important for me to acknowledge and discuss other eras of my movie-watching journey. In 2004 and 2005, when I was in fifth grade, Napoleon Dynamite was a big deal. Kids talked about it, quoted it, and wore those “Vote for Pedro” shirts. Even through middle school I remember kids wearing those shirts.
One night, when I spent the night at my grandparents’ house with my brother and two of my cousins, we rented the newly-released film from one of the two video stores in town (RIP).
I remember how much I liked (and still like) the opening credits. Looking back on it, it kind of reminds me of some opening credits sequences in old movies, like in The Front Page (1931) and Show Boat (1936)
I distinctly remember literally laughing until it hurt during the opening scene, in which Napoleon retrieves one of his action figures—which is tied onto a long string—and tosses it out the back window of the school bus he’s on. We all lost it. That was just the beginning of my laugh-until-it-hurt relationship with the film.
I don’t think I expected to enjoy Napoleon Dynamite as much as I did. I would’ve never imagined I’d be reminiscing and writing about it roughly fourteen years later. (Geez, has it really been that long? Ugh.) But I cannot deny that it’s one of the most influential films in my life.
I think my favorite thing about Napoleon Dynamite—besides the big scenes like the talent show and school dance—are the hysterical small moments that take up most of its 95-minute running time. Like, when Uncle Rico hurls his steak at Napoleon as Napoleon and Pedro are coming toward him on Napoleon’s bike. This happens moments after Uncle Rico bragged to Kip about how he supposedly used to be able to throw a football a quarter mile.
…And when Kip yells, “Your mom goes to college” at Napoleon’s classmate Deb as she’s trying to sell glamour shot sessions and handicrafts. As much as the line was quoted by fans, I can’t deny that it still cracks me up. (“I already made, like, infinity of those at scout camp” also gets me.)
…And when Napoleon throws an orange at Uncle Rico’s van’s windshield, which prompts Uncle Rico to run out of the car and chase Napoleon down. They end up in a brief scuffle, and the sequence ends with Napoleon running away, jumping a tall fence, and flopping. The flopping part always makes me laugh.
Shortly after this life-changing cinematic experience, I entered into middle school, where, looking back, I had some of my own Napoleon Dynamite-esque moments. I didn’t know where I fit in like many other pre-teens and teens. I didn’t quite understand how to socialize well, but I tried. I harbored two big secret crushes between sixth and eighth grade and I didn’t dare admit it to anyone until I dated one of them several years later.
I wasn’t a straight-A student…more of a mostly-B student. I got in trouble a couple of times, but I didn’t mean to do anything that would get me in trouble. I was moved once in computer class for chatting with a friend too much and when I was told to sit outside of the classroom in reading class for the same offense. I just had a lot of things on my mind, a lot of people around me, and a filter that I didn’t understand how to properly use. And I always felt terrible and terrified when teachers got onto me.
I was also self-conscious about how I thought my braces (which I had from summer ’06 to spring ’11) made my mouth look grotesque, which was emphasized by my full lips. I went to the trouble of training myself to smile in a way that made them seem smaller, or so I thought, by doing a weird thing with my top lip.
Below are photos take of me from my early high school years:
…It took years for me to appreciate having full lips, but I came around:
During middle school, I often wore a non-Vote for Pedro Napoleon Dynamite shirt. I did my “research” into the important question: Are ligers real? and learned the word coccyx, which I found out later on was not pronounced the way Uncle Rico pronounced it.
In seventh grade, I dressed up as Pedro for Halloween. My longtime friend and her family took me along on a weekend-long camping trip in early October ’06. My friend was Napoleon. I can still visualize her goofy wig and how funny we looked. Regrettably, I don’t think there’s any photographic evidence of our weekend; I’d give anything to see just one picture of us dressed up. It was a really fun weekend, one I’ll never forget.
The unapologetic awkwardness of Napoleon Dynamite is a breath of fresh air and something fun for the awkward kids to revel in. From the awkwardness of attending school dances with your crush or by yourself to trying to navigate through the school cafeteria, this movie shows it all. Sure, it may be completely over-the-top and seemingly unrealistic, but there really is some truth—and heart—to the story and message.