"And the number one sign that you're not the most popular guy in school?"
"#1? How the heck would I know? I'm like the coolest kid in school. Gosh!"
--Jon Heder, appearing as Napoleon Dynamite on The Late Show with David Letterman
In the past twenty years of teenage angst movies, perhaps the most memorable message is delivered by the nerd archetype at the end of John Hughes' The Breakfast Club. Asked to write a 1000-word essay explaining what they have learned after spending a Saturday locked in a library for detention, the other students, a jock, the prom queen, the rebel, and the basketcase characters all convince the brain to write their essays for them. In his essay, he summarizes the rosy lesson each of them learned after the eight hours spent together, thereby emphasizing the function of social groups on identity formation in high school which not only determine who sits where but who can occupy what role in this space (Brian, incidentally, occupies the lowest level in this space). Twenty-four years later after numerous high school films depict the ability of the nerds to overcome their "geekiness" and become just like everybody else, the film Napoleon Dynamite challenges this notion and offers a new role model for the high school nerd. (1)
Napoleon Dynamite opens with a brief nod to previous high school films, especially those by John Hughes, with the protagonist and a school bus. Napoleon, a tall, lanky, teenager with tight curly red hair and glasses, boards the telltale yellow bus and bee-lines for the coveted back seat typically reserved for the "cool kids." However, the only other "kids" on this bus are late elementary/ early middle school students and Napoleon's claim to the popular space is unchallenged and unnoticed (perhaps because he is older than the other passengers). Napoleon maintains his confident aloofness, usually claimed by the rebellious teenagers (as in Heathers, Some Kind of Wonderful, etc) throughout the remainder of the film. Napoleon lives with his rambunctious, fun-loving, grandma and his unemployed, 32-year-old brother, Kip, who spends much of his time in an online chat room. At school, in between being bullied, Napoleon is a member of his school's Future Farmers' of America organization and the Happy Hands Club, a group which performs sign language to pop music lyrics. His friends are the new Hispanic student, Pedro, and Deb, who tries to raise money for college by running a Glamour Shots type studio in her garage and selling woven key chains. When Napoleon's grandmother breaks her coccyx in an accident, his Uncle Rico moves in with him and Kip and proceeds to interfere in Napoleon's life. In the first half of the film, Napoleon and Pedro find dates for the upcoming school dance, and in the second half, the three friends work together to get Pedro elected as class president.
Napoleon Dynamite doesn't resist, reject, or oppose the traditional roles reserved for the nerdy teenager. Early in the movie, Napoleon and his brother visit the local dojo run by a sensei nearly as eccentric as they are. During the sales pitch for his eight week course, Rex (of Rex Kwon Do) lays out his three- step plan to success: One, find a buddy; Two, discipline your image; and Three, possess self-respect. From this point on, Napoleon, albeit unconsciously, illustrates how he already lives by this mantra. In this way, Napoleon subverts what it means to be a nerd as he, Uncle Rico, Kip, and Pedro grapple within a cinematic world that offers only limited and prefabricated niches for each individual. Napoleon Dynamite's characters challenge the expectations the audience usually has for the outsiders in school films by continuing to remain in their self-designated and peer designated roles. The message for those watching is multi-layered and multi-faceted, but obviously Jared Hess's film champions those who are able to negotiate high school without eternally questioning their "niche."
For the purposes of narrowing down the vast genre of teenage films, in order to examine the role of the nerd, I consider only those films which were filmed around the same time as or after The Breakfast Club, focus on teenagers in a school setting, and feature protagonists or supporting roles of those characters who represent "nerds." While this list includes only twenty films (see appendix A), I feel that it is possible to trace the evolving character of the nerd by noting how they are dressed, talk, treated by their peers, and behave at the conclusion of the film. Furthermore, I analyze the comments posted on the Sundance blog (postings begin November 2004 and still continue to the present time) to illustrate the ways in which those who view Napoleon Dynamite are moved by the Hess' ability to capture the "realness" of high school life and offer their opinions as to what Napoleon and his friends mean to them. Finally, in order to gain a better idea of how nerds are categorized and described by those who study high schools, I examine sociological studies about adolescent behavior, more specifically social groups and identity formation, and the influence of film on adolescents in order to illustrate how not only the concept of the nerd has changed in film but how that change could translate or perhaps already has to "real life" nerds.
The Bloggers Versus the Experts?
When I began researching this topic on the web, I was intrigued by the conversations viewers of this film were posting to a website for bloggers who wanted to respond to films shown at the Sundance Film Festival. I was impressed by how many viewers identified with Napoleon, even to the point of using his language. According to Cameron McCarthy and Greg Dimitriadis, "television, film, radio, and the internet are now the most powerful sites for educating about difference and the production of resentment" (2000). I would suggest that although this notion is true, it's interesting to consider how blogs may or may not avoid perpetuating the "language of resentment" of …