Movies & More
In 'Napoleon Dynamite,' Nerdity Without Shame
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page N03
And lo, it came to be revealed that some Mormons have a unique sense of humor.
The indie-oddball teenage comedy "Napoleon Dynamite," which just opened in Washington and is quickly adding theaters across the country, was shot in 22 days for $200,000 by a bunch of graduates and students of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah -- the center of higher education for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU students are forbidden to sport beards, wear skirts above the knee or possess alcohol, tobacco, coffee or tea.
"I'd say 90 percent of the cast and crew came from BYU," estimated the film's director, Jared Hess, 24, who wrote the screenplay with his wife, Jerusha. They met at Brigham Young, introduced by one of the film's lead actors, Aaron Ruell. Executive producer Jeremy Coon, also from BYU, tapped a relative for the money it cost to shoot and cut the film.
The movie, rated PG, is squeaky-clean by today's teen-fare standards: no big boom-booms on the nympheteers (think "Mean Girls"), no profanity (as in "Saved!") and no violence (except a little thing with a cow).
Instead, "Dynamite" is a romp about a mouth-breathing superdork with bad hair who seeks his eccentric version of high school glory in a small town in Idaho populated by eccentrics. The humor is deadpan, out of kilter and observational, fixated on details from a 1980s time warp: plenty of Tater Tots, moon boots and a VCR that loads from the top.
The antihero is played by Jon Heder, a Mormon who will graduate from BYU with a degree in animation in August. Heder first developed the role in a nine-minute student film called "Peluca." As for the name, Hess says he first heard it while attending to his missionary duties near Chicago in 2000. "I was on the streets of Cicero and I introduced myself to this character who said he was Napoleon Dynamite, and I thought to myself, 'I have got to use that,' " Hess says, though actually the guy was riffing on an alias once used by musician Elvis Costello.
Anyway, "Dynamite" wowed audiences in February at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was bought by Fox Searchlight Pictures, which then partnered with MTV and Paramount Pictures to sell the product. The film has gotten generally happy reviews.
David Edelstein of Slate magazine, for example, wrote: " 'Napoleon Dynamite' is too low-wattage to be a true nerd anthem, but it's charming in retrospect, when you're freed from the narcoleptic pace to think back on the queerly beautiful tableaux and well-timed gags. It's like Wes Anderson on Quaaludes."
The characters in "Napoleon Dynamite" have no clear religious affiliation. "All religions and cultures have all kinds of people, each totally unique," Hess says. "And all funny in their own ways. I hope."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Auteur of abstinence: Director Jared Hess, left, and his Brigham Young buddies shot "Napoleon Dynamite" in three weeks on a shoestring budget in Provo, Utah. Above, Aaron Ruell and Jon Heder in a scene from the film.
(Fox Searchlight Pictures)