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‘Napoleon Dynamite’ is an Underrated Coming-Of-Age Story

Napoleon Dynamite is not what you think. It might seem like a weird teenage movie—and it is—but it’s so much more. The 2004 film is a classic coming-of-age story filled about friendship, self-confidence, and triumph. These values inspire youths in any generation because they’re what every teenager yearns for. Perhaps the best thing about the coming-of-age genre is how it will always have a guaranteed fanbase. As long as there is youth, there will be the struggle with teenaged angst, and stories like this will always need to be told.

How many generations have seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, or Sixteen Candles? How many will see Mean Girls, Superbad, or The Perks of Being a Wallflower? Plenty. How many will see Napoleon Dynamite? Not enough. As long as people see Jared Hess’ masterpiece as just an insignificant, lackluster film, it will never be appreciated for how well it fits into the beloved genre.

With few exceptions, successful coming-of-age films follow the same formula: an overlooked yet gutsy protagonist and their determined companion must come to terms with themselves and the world around them to overcome an seemingly impossible situation. Sound familiar? Of course it does, because we’ve seen it a thousand times before and we’re gonna watch it a thousand times more – because movies like this are irresistible.

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Napoleon (Jon Heder) looking ridiculously fly for prom. (Courtesy of MTV Films)

Overlooked, yet gutsy protagonist: Jon Heder plays the absurd titular character so naturally, it feels like we’ve known him for years. It’s hilarious when he stuffs his tater tots in his pocket, but it’s somehow expected at that point. Napoleon has a lot of nerve in him though; he asked a pretty girl from school out on a date and danced in front of the whole school. He’s got skills and tons of guts!

Determined companion: Efren Ramirez’s performance as Pedro leans into the awkward, yet admirable aspects of the character. We all need a Pedro; he’s honest, loyal, and determined when many teenagers have no idea what they want or how to get it. He saw that his new school needed some changes, so he decided to run for class president. He does not go about this to be as petty as Janis and Damian plotting to destroy Regina George (Rachel McAdams) in Mean Girls or as sleazy as Seth (Jonah Hill) making it his mission to sleep with Jules (Emma Stone) in Superbad.

Impossible situation: Every coming-of-age protagonist must overcome an impossible situation, here the goal is to win the class presidency. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ferris had to skip school without getting caught. In The Breakfast Club, the protagonists had to survive a day in detention. Napoleon helped Pedro, the new and probably the only person of color in the school, become class president. These aren’t life or death situations, but at that age and in such an environment as high school, it might as well be.

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Two brave souls fighting to do the impossible. Efren Ramirez as Pedro and Jon Heder as Napoleon. (Courtesy of MTV Films)

In all these movies, the protagonists came to terms with themselves and the world around them. Sometimes this realization is the same for a lot of movies of the genre. Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) in Mean Girls and the kids in The Breakfast Club realized that labels and cliques don’t define a person. Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower learned not to blame himself for his aunt’s death.  Napoleon discovered that he does have attractive skills and his self-confidence isn’t misplaced.  In all instances, the protagonist comes out a better person with more ease and security.

Even though we’ve seen these tropes and characters before, it’s still a breath of fresh air every time. Coming-of-age movies like this make us equally nostalgic for our younger years and glad that we don’t have to experience that kind of overwhelming uncertainty and embarrassment anymore. It takes a special type of movie to incite nostalgia and relief, and Napoleon Dynamite has no trouble doing that.

What are some of your favorite coming-of-age movies? Is Napoleon Dynamite on that list now? What are your thoughts on this objective masterpiece? Let me know in the comments down below!

Please stay safe.

Nothing but love.

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