Napoleon Dynamite

dir. Hess
Opens Fri July 2
Various Theaters

Most teen comedies barely scrape the pimpled surface of adolescent drudgery. Even "unpopular" silver screen kids are usually still attractive enough for your average Noxzema commercial. There are plenty of laughs to mine from the pseudo-tortured lives of more realistically nerdy, unpopular, and just plain odd 14- to 18-year-olds, though, as most of us were some combination of those. As Napoleon Dynamite shows us, young geek alienation is just as fun to parody as its grownup counterparts. In this charming new film, 24-year-old writer/director Jared Hess mines the nebulous area between popular chic and weirdo freak, where outcast attributes are both quality, subtle comedy and a charmingly dark part of our collective high school unconscious.

Coming off like a Wes Anderson movie populated by benign Harmony Korine castoffs, Napoleon Dynamite focuses on title character Napoleon, played in flawless deadpan by Jon Heder. Napoleon is your classic high school outcast--tall and lanky with a shock of blond Afro, moon boots, and wire-frame glasses--who doodles pictures of man-beasts and plays tetherball alone on the playground. He's a smart teenager who's frustrated with the world but rarely confident enough to struggle against it, instead living under a veil of quick sarcastic outbursts and eyeing people with a squint. His life gets shoved in a new direction, though, when his butch grandma gets injured in a sporting accident and creepy Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) becomes temporary caretaker for Napoleon and his 30-year-old nerd brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). At the same time, an earnest Mexican kid named Pedro (Efren Ramirez) becomes Napoleon's friend.

New blood is slowly infused into these characters' lives as the men in the Dynamite clan shape their identities in a middle-of-nowhere Idaho town. Uncle Rico is so fixated on the past he's willing to buy a time machine (and hit on girls half his age), while Kip puts his faith in Internet romance. Napoleon, content to live in a fantasy world of his creation, attempts to alter his life the least, but ends up learning the art of spontaneity in spite of himself.

Napoleon Dynamite is a character-driven movie, as each new introduction only adds color to the already rich cast, and wisps of plot are less important than how the individuals interact with each other.