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Vote for Neuro(diversity): On the 20th Anniversary of Napoleon Dynamite

I revisited Dustin Hoffman’s extraordinary performance as the autistic Raymond in “Rain Man” (1998) and for the first time noticed how many shots are from Raymond’s point of view: the play of light and shadow on a diner floor, the hypnotic glitter of a spinning roulette wheel or a silver chain, in brief poetic cutaways reminiscent of Ozu’s “pillow shots.” No slight against “Rain Man”; it’s a great movie. But I’m not surprised those shots never registered before, because it’s not really Raymond’s movie, despite the titular “rain man” being his childhood nickname. The true protagonist is a selfish yuppie (Tom Cruise) who first resents and then cherishes his frustrating savant brother. It’s a beautiful story, but there is prejudice implicit in how Raymond can’t be the hero of the movie that bears his name.

That was the nature of autistic characters in movies—they were either objects of pity in tragic disease-of-the-week flicks like “Son Rise: A Miracle of Love” (1979, the first narrative feature about autism), or McGuffins in plots where their miraculous math abilities were useful in cracking codes (“Mercury Rising,” 1998), or their refusal to speak could add tension to murder procedurals (“Silent Fall,” 1994). If they weren’t involved in legal intrigue, they existed to add spice to dreary protagonist’s stuck lives—Manic Aspie Dream Girls like in “Molly” (1999) or “Snow Cake” (2006) performed with disheartening sameness by attractive lead actors succumbing to Simple Jack Syndrome, exhibiting hand-clapping glee at zoo animals or spinning light toys, piping up facts about protons or satellites to prove their bona fides, or screaming at dull moments. Movie characters on the autism spectrum never got to be the hero of their own stories. All of that changed in 2004 with “Napoleon Dynamite.”

The gawky, frizz-haired Napoleon (Jon Heder) is no Rain Man–style savant, despite his yearning for the nunchaku/bowhunting/computer hacking “skillllls” that in his mind guarantee romantic success. He doesn’t wax poetic about prime numbers or display a spiritual rapport with animals or computers, and the closest he comes to an outburst of whimsy is in performance with the Happy Hands sign language club. Is he autistic? No one in the movie diagnoses him as such (the closest we get is Uncle Rico fishing for sympathy from a potential sale by divulging Napoleon still wets the bed). The DSM-V’s definition, however, is, as he would put it, flippin’ sweet: tendency towards flat affect, dislike of eye contact, ungainly body language, unusual and fixated interests, difficulty with small talk and reciprocal conversation. To be fair, Napoleon doesn’t have telling symptoms such as hypersensitivity to overstimulation, but is there any opportunity for sensory overload in their sleepy Idaho town?

No adults close to Napoleon shake their head in rueful marvel at how odd yet how magnificent he is, either. He is an ignored irritant, tactless, driven, unable to bridge the gap of human warmth. But he also has a stubborn tenacity for that which he values and dreams, which is relatable and admirable. He feels frustration, but never despair, the too-common coin of the cultural realm in the raw years immediately post-9/11. (It’s forgotten how viciously dark American satire was in that era, how monstrously cruel our appetite for reality TV humiliation and bloodthirsty denouement was before the era of trigger warnings. Current viewers have attested to an ominous undercurrent of isolation and exile in “Napoleon Dynamite,” but at the time its rural hipster aesthetic was welcomely PG-rated escapist froth.) And when his triumphant dance solo to Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” in front of the assembled school clinches the class presidency for his best friend Pedro (Efrem Ramirez), it’s a win for all of us.

As scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin put it rhetorically in her 2010 TED talk, “[Autism] is a continuum of traits. Where does nerd turn into Asperger’s Syndrome?” No more precisely than where the lion ends and a tiger begins in the nonbinary DNA of a liger, the rare and oddball hybrid that’s Napoleon’s favorite animal. He, as well as co-director Jared and Jerusha Hess’s arch Goodwill-gone-gonzo mise en scene are a pure example of true “queer” cinema—not LGBTQ-ness, but sheer oddity, that lip-curling, undefinable something’s off–ness that drives wild animals to mysteriously abandon seemingly thriving pups and exiles unfortunate children to eat lunch solo. (“I see you’re drinking one-percent,” observes Napoleon to nerd-next-door Deb (Tina Majorino) when they’re seated together in the cafeteria. “Is that ’cause you think you’re fat?” He explains, in his obtuse version of sweet talk, “’Cause you're not. You could be drinking whole if you wanted to.”)

In  April 2004, Tony Peyser called out “The United States of Leland” for using an autistic character’s murder as a morally icky plot device, lamenting “It’s disheartening to realize that a great movie about autism has yet to be made.” Just three months later came “Napoleon Dynamite,” and its Roger Bannister–like influence is remarkable. There are very few movies where a character on the spectrum is the hero of their own story pre-2004 (the only outlier is the Australian cult comedy “Malcolm” (1986)), but the choices are rich afterwards: biopics like “Temple Grandin” (2010) and “The Social Network” (2010); bildungsromans like “A Brilliant Young Mind” (2015), “Please Stand By” (2017), “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011), and “The Story of Luke” (2010); relationship movies like “Mozart and The Whale” (2005) and “Mary and Max” (2009); even action movies like “The Accountant” (2016), in which Ben Affleck embodies the strong, silent action hero recast for the algorithm age. (Bollywood even got into the game with what might be the most intriguingly unusual of the post-“Napoleon” movies: “My Name Is Khan (2010), a drama about an autistic Muslim man (Shah Rukh Khan) who embarks on a post-9/11 pilgrimage to plead his case for selfhood and dignity to the president of the United States.)

“Why do [neurotypical people] care about social hierarchies?” Asperger’s researcher Tony Attwood posits in his book Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. “Why not treat everyone in the same way?” In Kip and Napoleon’s monoculture majority white town, where locals mockingly pronounce “chimney-changas” and “queso-dill-as,” the brothers befriend Pedro and LaFawnduh, the only characters of color. We can’t overlook the possibility of Napoleon’s scrawny, computer-obsessed, eye-contact avoiding brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) also being autistic, or that his romance with the glamorous and generous-hearted LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery) is also a hero’s journey. Kip and LaFawnduh’s unlikely partnership (defying race, culture, and geography) is a time capsule of the anonymous salvation promised by the early internet and still valued by many neurodivergent people, that online we can be our best, pure selves, unhampered by the identities forced upon us by an illogical world. As Kip puts it in his wedding serenade to his bride, “Yes, I love technology / but not as much as you, you see, / but I still love technology / always and forever.”

“The Napoleon Dynamite Problem” was a phenomena coined by Netflix in response to how their existing algorithms were inadequate to predict whether a viewer would like the movie or not, based on their past viewing history. Unlike cultural watersheds like “Pulp Fiction,” which spawned many knockoffs (“Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag,” anyone?), there really hasn’t been another movie capturing “Napoleon Dynamite”’s flavor (except, of course, other movies directed by Jared and Jerusha Hess). Its lasting impact was how it paved the way for other autistic characters to be the heroes of their own stories.

Roger Ebert did not like this movie, noting in 2004 that it embodied “a kind of studied stupidity that sometimes passes as humor” and that Napoleon’s climactic dance triumph “comes at the cost of clowning before his fellow students.” Clowning? Those sweet moves? Winning over those mean normies was never the goal, anyway. The joy at the end is not that Napoleon is accepted by the world’s dull ruling class, but that he’s no longer playing tetherball alone. Similarly, the win for autistic people is not that they become like everyone else. It’s that they connect with the people and things that really matter without having to compromise who they are, and that their stories can be viewed with empathy and dignity. Or, like Pedro put it, that all of their wildest dreams will come true.

 

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