Poverty on Film: Napoleon Dynamite

For some time now I have been mulling over a response to Peter’s earlier article about how Hollywood, as of late, has generally ignored poverty, poor people, and those who cannot afford to live with every single need and want easily taken care of. Much like Peter, I too am disgusted at the simple depictions of lavish living; the notion that any “middle class” family possesses an enormous home with plenty of gadgets and cars and never worries about its source of income is more than insulting.

Such depictions can be found in any number of children’s films, and Peter mentions Mr. Popper’s Penguins as one grotesque example.  I would extend this observation to the multitude of live action serials on Nickelodeon and Disney TV.  The children, tweens, and teens on these shows appear to be independently wealthy: clothes, phones, TVs, video games, you name it.  In one way, shows such as iCarly and Victorious are more fantastical than SpongeBob SquarePants.  Hell, at least he works a minimum wage job for a skinflint boss to pay his way.

However, when trying to think of a semi-recent film that actually portrayed poverty and poor people as the central subject, the one that immediately entered into my thoughts was Napoleon Dynamite (2004).  Napoleon Dynamite is a teen film in that it depicts teens and high school life. Yet unlike the vast majority of teen films that are set in plush suburbia amid parents whose income simultaneously emerges without labor and is constantly boundless, Napoleon Dynamite centers around a teen, the self-titled character played by Jon Heder, who remains trapped in extreme poverty in the rural town of Preston, Idaho.

And while the audience laughs at (and is often meant to laugh at) Napoleon’s youthful awkwardness, I still believe that the audience can sympathize with his plight.  Heder does a wonderful job portraying a rather clueless character whose lower jaw hangs agape and eyes stare vacantly somewhere well beyond the immediate vicinity.  Napoleon’s gait and motions also depict a young man who is insecure and not quite certain how his body should move.  His legs and upper body never quite seem to be aligned; his disjointed appearance adds to his teenage awkwardness.

What makes the film work, though, as a film about poverty, is the continual insistence on the lack of resources and material objects.  Napoleon constantly refers to how hungry he is.  And rather than these pronouncements being read as a typical teenage boy with a bottomless stomach, Napoleon’s declarations indicate that there is, quite literally, no food in his house.  The stuffing of tater tots from school lunch trays into his pants to eat at a later time is more tragedy than comedy.  He is malnourished, and he eventually takes a chicken-shit job (he literally tends chickens) to earn a lunch and a dollar an hour.

Napoleon wears the same clothes, which, from their ill-fitting appearance appear to be second-hand. His home, rather than being filled with excess, is noticeable for what it lacks: food, entertainment, and other furnishings.  Even the home’s interior, with its old wood paneling, points to poverty, or at least a lack of wealth.

And it is not just Napoleon who is poor, the entire community in rural Southeastern Idaho is poor.  The school yard has aging black top and playground equipment that looks as if it could not pass a safety inspection. Yet this is where the kids go to school.  Others in the community also struggle with a lack of resources.  Napoleon’s eventual girlfriend travels door to door selling trinkets in hopes that she may eventually raise enough money to go to college. Part of the film’s sadness is watching her believe that she could fund her post-secondary education in this manner.  Even the “rich” kids and parents do not have limitless supplies of money.  They simply have new clothes and furniture purchased within the last ten years.  The parents will probably be able to afford college for their children, but not without making some sacrifices. These individuals are comfortable and secure, but hardly the image of excessive wealth.

Nor are the “rich” kids villains who terrorize the likes of Napoleon and his outcast friends.  Sure, they see Napoleon as odd, and they do not want to befriend him, but their views of him are colored by what they cannot see, his material circumstances.  They cannot relate to him because they cannot relate to living in poverty or waking up hungry.  The notion that his behavior and appearance is the partial result of his economic reality is not something that these high schoolers can comprehend.  (And honestly, how many high schoolers would comprehend it.)

I sometimes view this film as a challenge.  Do we want to see the poverty, or will we ignore it and laugh at the bodily humor?  To be fair, some of the comedy scenes are well delivered, yet it becomes difficult to laugh at certain scenes once we recognize the near desperate circumstances in which the characters reside.

I debate over how much director Jared Hess intended to use his film as a Marxist critique of people’s material reality and how they relate to it.  Maybe my reading of it is an accident.  Yet I do not think that Hess wanted to make an amoral film filled with gross comedy. Hess, a Mormon who went to BYU and grew up in rural Idaho, is obviously familiar with his setting.  Like any artist or director, he takes shots at his own hometown, but he does not abandon it to ridicule.  There is something tangibly good to be found in this community.

The final scene of the film rests on Napoleon and his girlfriend, Deb (Tina Majorina), playing tether ball on the school playground.  No one is around them.  In fact, nothing is around them.  There might not be any future in Preston, Idaho, but Napoleon and Deb will enjoy the each other’s companionship.  In the end, the forging of a genuine human bond is heartfelt, but the scene leaves us pondering how the cycle of poverty can broken.  Napoleon and Deb are good people, but like that tether ball, they can only go so far.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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3 Responses to Poverty on Film: Napoleon Dynamite

  1. Shawn Hambright says:

    Winter’s Bone is another good recent example of poverty in film. Though, not anywhere near as hilarious as ND.

  2. thstarkweather says:

    I felt that the scenes of the high school in Winter’s Bone were well done. In a small space, they showed the limited options for so many of the students in rural Arkansas.

  3. DJW says:

    I just came across this, and I am intrigued by your thoughts. This film, though it has made me laugh since the first time that I saw it, has always held a greater significance in my mind that goes beyond mere comedy. Prior to finding your article, I viewed this film as a paradoxical depiction of strange normalcy. The characters seem to exist in some sort of limbo between this new millennium and the 1980s, and many members of this generation may only view this as comical. However, at the same time, many aspects of this film are plainly… normal. As outrageous as some of the events are, they are all well within the realm of possibility for the residents of a small American town. I think that this mix of quirkiness and reality is what makes Napoleon Dynamite one of my favorite movies. In the same light, I think the ideas that are conveyed by this film are much more profound than most will acknowledge.

    An added note: Your discussion of the seemingly automatic affluence of many modern film families is something that I have caught on to. It disgusts me as well.

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