Revenge of the (Idaho) nerd in 'Napoleon Dynamite'

Who would have guessed that a refreshing new take on the overused teen-comedy genre would come from rural Idaho, where it was shot by a first-time filmmaker?

The movie is "Napoleon Dynamite," named after its hero, a nerd so nerdy he almost outdoes the losers in "Mean Girls" and "American Splendor" for sheer geekiness.

Although several of the picture's creators hail from Brigham Young University in Utah, director Jared Hess filmed it in Preston, Idaho, where he grew up. The story is as steeped in Middle American atmosphere as "Election" and other dark comedies by Alexander Payne, but Mr. Hess gives his own special twist to debunking the utopian myth of heartland America that appears in mainstream movies. He throws in fractured families, scarce employment, and schools so boring that a student-president campaign can seem like the event of a lifetime.

Hess explores such everyday matters with a dryly humorous touch that must be seen to be appreciated. He's a true motion-picture minimalist, never using a cinematic shout when a visual whisper will do. The film's talented actors share this understated wavelength, especially Jon Heder as Napoleon and Efren Ramirez as a lonely Latino whose bid to become president of the student body seems fated to fail, since his opponent is the prettiest girl in town.

Also on hand are Napoleon's visiting uncle, one of those relatives who seem to think embarrassing you is their mission in life, and Napoleon's older brother, whose Internet girlfriend gives the story a hilarious boost when she comes to meet her wooer in person.

I thought just a few weeks ago that I never wanted to see another teen comedy, since I'd already sat through enough of them to last several lifetimes. Then the genre started spinning in directions I never expected, first in the satirical "Saved!" and now in this offbeat entry.

"Napoleon Dynamite" may not make you laugh out loud - it's too sly and subtle for that - but it will have you smiling every minute, and often grinning widely at its weirded-out charm.

Nerdiness will never seem the same.

Rated PG; contains vulgarity.

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