For hit-hungry film distributors seeking a bargain at the annual Sundance Film Festival (where this indie gem premiered in January), this is exactly the kind of movie to set their hearts fluttering. Made for under $500,000, Hess’s debut feature has, to date, taken more than $43 million at the US box office. It’s a handsome payout, and proof that there is hope for small American filmmakers looking to compete with their big budget compatriots.
Not that any such cynical profiteering informed 25-year-old Hess’s original gameplan: to turn his hit short film, ‘Peluca’, a zero-budget, comic take on his small hometown of Preston, Idaho, into a full-length, subversive skit on the typical high-school comedy. Napoleon (Jon Heder) is our focus: a teenage boy so unattractive, so awkward, so out-of-sync, so damn wrong that he ultimately endears himself as an outlaw and fully-fledged hero. The obvious parallel is Dawn Wiener in Todd Solondz’s much superior ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’. Like Dawn, Napoleon does himself no favours. He wears moon boots and bad T-shirts; he likes to sketch unicorns and ‘ligers’ (an imagined hybrid of a lion and a tiger); and he doesn’t know the first thing about friendship or romance. His dysfunctional family is equally bad: older brother Kip has the worst moustache in history and spends all day on internet dating sites, while Uncle Rico is a failing door-to-door salesman whose big dream is to return to 1982 and resurrect his stalled football career. It’s a cast of brilliant caricatures, and as such recalls the films of Wes Anderson, especially ‘Rushmore’.
Admittedly, much of the humour is very silly – feeding on sight gags and slapstick – and not all of it hits the mark. But there’s a serious side too. The embarrassments of school and teenage life are up there to squirm at in both shame and horror.