Napoleon Dynamite &

Maria Full of Grace

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, July 5, 2004

 

Not every movie this summer will be a blockbuster sequel boasting computer wizardry and butt-kicking babes in bustiers. Perhaps the most promising small film on the horizon is August's "Bright Young Things," Stephen Fry's adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies. In the meantime, two quite different low budget movies about intriguing teenagers, "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Maria Full of Grace," will debut.

"Napoleon Dynamite," a $400,000 comedy that was snatched up at the Sundance Festival for $3 million by Fox Searchlight, is the first feature written by two Brigham Young University graduates, 24-year-old director Jared Hess and his pregnant wife Jerusha. The director says, "The characters are inspired largely by people I grew up with in Idaho, especially by my five younger brothers."

At the screening I attended, Hollywood's Bright Young Mormons were out in force as the theatre resounded with the lovely laughter of wholesome-looking starlets from the Great Basin. The twenty-something crowd found the small town misadventures and eventual triumph of an ornery high school geek (voted "Most Likely to Find Sasquatch") a cartoonish but redolent delight. This mild, PG-rated film is winning bellylaughs from gentiles under-25 too, so the studio is now rolling it out to 1,200 theatres.

Personally, I didn't find the movie terribly funny, which made me feel downright wizened to realize that I'm too over-the-hill to get the jokes that are slaying all the Mormon hipsters.

Also, I was embarrassed by how much our el dorko hero -- as played by a tall BYU student named Jon Heder with a blondish afro, thick glasses, perpetually peeved expression, and a brown polyester three-piece suit -- looked like me, circa 1977. The production designer, another BYU grad, described the mish-mash "retro-ugly" aesthetic of Preston, Idaho's inhabitants like this: "We had this sense of people who lived in a world where all the styles that got left behind were just piled up on top of one another."

One of the less remarked demographic trends is that the makers of "Napoleon Dynamite" represent the future. As coastal sophisticates fail to reproduce themselves, an ever-increasing percentage of young white people come from conservative, religious backgrounds. Mormon Utah has by far the highest birthrate, of course, but in the 2000 election, the 19 states with the highest white fertility all voted for Bush, while nine of the ten states at the bottom of the white birthrate list voted for Gore.

"Napoleon Dynamite" consists mostly of disjointed skits, and doesn't develop a plot until halfway through when Napoleon decides to help his only friend, a Mexican immigrant, defeat the snooty blonde beauty for class President. In contrast, "Maria Full of Grace," the story of a 17-year-old Colombian girl who transports 62 golf ball-sized drug pellets to New York in her digestive track, is nothing but a freight train of a plot.

Coming in July, the R-rated "Maria" is, oddly enough, a Spanish-language film written and directed by a young American named Joshua Marston, whose father had grown up in Colombia. Marston is devoted to cinematic realism, so he researched the lives of drug mules intimately. His key question became why some Colombians become criminals while others don't.

The director ran into an analogous conundrum on the national scale when the endemic violence in Colombia grew so threatening that he had to shift his production at the last minute to neighboring Ecuador. Why has Colombia long been notorious for people chopping each other up with chainsaws, "Scarface"-style, while Ecuador clings to respectability?

Pretty young Maria is employed dethorning rose stems in Colombia's honest export industry. It's boring work -- although there are plenty of other jobs that smell worse. But it's not good enough for Maria. Nor is her boring boyfriend's dutiful offer of marriage when she announces she's pregnant. Maria then wonders if she can trick an expensively-dressed young man with a fast motorcycle into thinking the baby is his, only to discover that this recruiter for the Cartel merely wants to get into her gastrointestinal tract.

Marston's unsentimental approach works well, until the "happy ending" when Maria decides to stay here as an illegal alien. Her fatherless baby will be born a U.S. citizen, making her alarmingly hard to deport. The movie assumes that she's escaping the turmoil in her native land, but we Americans can be forgiven for worrying whether this single teen mother with a taste for trouble isn't just bringing some of it with her.

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