Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
Napoleon Dynamite

If you’ve noticed words like “sweet” and “awesome”peppering your kid’s lingo even more frequently than they used to, here’s a possible explanation: it could be that he or she has become a devotee of Napoleon Dynamite.

If so, he or she will have a lot of company—repeat and word-of-mouth business from a youthful audience has kept this low-budget indie comedy in the multiplexes for 13 weeks now.

He sounds like a blaxploitation hero, but the title character of Napoleon Dynamite is about as Caucasian as it gets. As played by Jon Heder, Napoleon, a high-school kid in a sunny suburb somewhere in the rolling Idaho grasslands, is just possibly the purest and most unmitigated representative of nerd-dom in movie history: tall, skinny and pink, with a face that's somehow both thin and full-cheeked, blank, half-closed eyes behind thick glasses, rabbity teeth behind slack lips, frizzy reddish-blond hair.

Napoleon's voice is a low, post-adolescent rasp suffused with weary annoyance, and the basis for that annoyance isn't imaginary. He gets mocked, mauled and locker-slammed by bigger and more popular kids—almost everyone, in other words—all day long.

But it's also clear that these physical and social indignities are less irritating to him than the drudgery of having to actually interact with such mediocrities. Heaving massive sighs, he lashes out impatiently at any casual inquiry—like the film's opening line, "What're you gonna do today, Napoleon?" as if it were the 50th stupid question he'd been asked in a row.

Directed by Jared Hess, from a script he wrote with his wife, Jerusha Hess, the film follows Napoleon through a string of furtive almost-adventures that order themselves loosely into something resembling a plot.

At home, Our Hero must endure life with his wimpy, Internet-addicted older brother (the amazing Aaron Ruell) and his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a frustrated kitchenware and bust-enhancement salesman living wistfully in his high school football memories.

Meanwhile, at school, Napoleon makes friends with a blankly unflappable new kid, Pedro (Erfren Ramirez), and also, more tentatively, with Debra (Tina Majorino), an anxious girl who works at the local Glamour Shots studios, and who wears a sidelong ponytail that resembles some sort of punctuation mark.

Eventually, the three of them go into politics, striving to get Pedro elected student body president. But their opponent—popular girl Summer (Haylie Duff)— is formidable.

Strictly in terms of content, Napoleon Dynamite is just another nerd-overcomes-adversity comedy, and no less sentimental than the rest. The difference, this time—and the reason, I think, that the film has become a hit—is the astringency of the style.

Napoleon’s dorky dignity isn’t milked for pathos; it’s taken as a character idiosyncrasy to be laughed at, even as we find it lovable. At the risk of making an exalted comparison, the film’s approach to its hero is less Charlie Chaplin than Buster Keaton.

The movie’s take on dweebishness is also more unflinching. As Harvey Pekar pointed out in American Splendor, the Hollywood idea of the nerd, a la the John Hughes films and Revenge of the Nerds, is usually an attractive middle-class kid going through a charmingly awkward phase.

It’s an Anthony Michael Hall type, on his way to becoming a computer tycoon or, maybe, a movie director. If that’s your idea of a geek, Napoleon may seem grotesquely exaggerated to you. But if you’ve ever known any real, hard-core, lifer nerds, you’ll know that he’s only the tiniest bit stylized.