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Small budget independents grow up to be big hits

Aug. 31, 2004

This past weekend, Napoleon Dynamite came to theaters in Waco, an occurrence which had been silently spurred on by movie-goers for weeks. Independent movies often showcase actors' abilities in greater depth and can gain more of an emotional connection with the audience. They rely on character development, music and offbeat story lines. Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State and The Door in the Floor are three of this summer's top indies that shouldn't be ignored and are well worth the $5.

Napoleon Dynamite


Jared Hess grew up around llamas.

Hess, 24, co-wrote and directed the surprising summer hit Napoleon Dynamite, a geeky comedy based loosely on his own experiences.

The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and was picked up by Fox Searchlight for over $3 million.

Napoleon Dynamite was filmed in Preston, Idaho, where Hess finished out the remaining three years of his high school career. The lackluster setting was the perfect backdrop for Hess' chronicles of a classic nerd in a small-town high school.

"I just wanted to do the type of comedy that I always wanted to see," Hess told reporter Daniel Robert Epstein. "I had never seen a real, true underdog drawing unicorns in class like I used to."

The clumsy hero of the film, played by first-time actor Jon Heder, first appeared in Hess' comic short, Peluca (look for it on the Napoleon Dynamite DVD). Napoleon, the slack-jawed, lethargic lead, lives in a world of archaic weapons and mythical beasts. Indifferent to the world around him, he buries himself in tether ball and tater tots.

Napoleon joins forces with Pedro, a Mexican transfer student, and novice glamour-shot photographer Deb. Together they fight classic adolescent battles -- both at school and at home.

After graduating high school, Hess spent two years as a Mormon missionary in Venezuela and Chicago. In Chicago, he met an Italian-American man who introduced himself as "Napoleon Dynamite." Hess knew the name was destined for the silver screen.

Much of the dialogue in the film came directly from conversations with Hess' five younger brothers.

Hess told Epstein, "I did get a phone call from one of my brothers that went, 'Is Mom there?' 'No, she's getting her hair done.' 'Uh, can you bring me my Chapstick?'"

Many of the most bizarre episodes in the film were based on stories from Hess' past. As children, his brothers witnessed the family's bull being shot in front of a school bus. And Hess' mother really did keep pet llamas at the family's home in Preston (the actual llama that appeared in the movie is her current pet, Dolly). Hess wrote these stories and more into Napoleon Dynamite.

"[My] friend's brother actually did buy a time machine online, like Napoleon's Uncle Rico did, from a guy in Florida. ... The guy that built it sent him four or five 10-dollar bills from different time periods so he could buy stuff when he time traveled."

As a film student at Brigham Young University, Hess met his wife Jerusha, 23, who co-wrote the film with him. Hess explains that certain episodes in the movie are based on his wife's experiences as well.

"I think, more than anything, it was me being able to look back on how awkward I was in high school and being able to laugh about it," Hess told Epstein. "I did wear moon boots and Hammer pants to school one time."

Garden State

By JOEL DOURIS, contributor

Zach Braff explores the abyss of life as Andrew Largeman in his new movie, Garden State.

Braff, known from the NBC television show Scrubs, shows tremendous heart in his writing and directorial debut. He presents a dark comedy that relies heavily on the ironies of everyday situations.

The story centers around Largeman or "Large," played by Braff, who takes time off from his marginally successful acting career in Los Angeles to go home because of the recent death of his mother. Because of incorrectly prescribed drugs at a young age, Large has led a numb existence and decides to leave his medicine behind for his short time spent at home. He unexpectedly meets Sam (Natalie Portman) and is immediately attracted to her uniqueness and passion. Large spends most of his time with Sam and a group of old friends, conveniently avoiding an inevitable confrontation with his father.

This film's honesty is the source for its inspiration. Braff plays with the structure of the movie to bring to life a truly realistic and original experience. He breaks traditional screen writing rules to present something that is real to him.

"When I wrote Garden State, I was completely depressed, waiting tables and lonesome as I've ever been in my life," Braff states in his Web journal. "The script was a way for me to articulate what I was feeling; alone, isolated, and homesick for a place that didn't even exist."

Walking into this film, I already had high expectations. The sound track alone was reason enough for me to see this film. With tracks from Iron and Wine, The Shins and Nick Drake, it can truly stand alone. While watching this film, I was in disbelief that it was Braff's first.

It's one of the best films I have seen all year and includes strong dialogue and use of symbols that bring its characters to life. A strategically placed motif of Noah and the Ark during one of the last scenes further illustrates Large's desire to start his life over. Whether it is love or pain, Large simply desires to feel again.

The Door in the Floor

By DREW WILLIAMSON, sports writer

The Door in the Floor provides the movie viewing public with a film atypical from the usual summer flick. Based on the first half of John Irving's, A Widow for One Year, The Door in the Floor is a character-based film that encompasses both tragedy and comedy.

Famous children's author Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges) and his wife Marion (Kim Basinger) are spending yet another summer in the prestigious East Hamptons outside New York. As the film begins, the audience is immediately dropped in the middle of a marriage headed for turmoil.

A mysterious tragedy in the family seems to have caused serious setbacks in each of the characters. Marion is struggling with depression and her husband has turned into a womanizer. These flaws prevent the couple from concentrating on salvaging a marriage once filled with happiness.

To make matters more difficult, the couple has a young daughter (Elle Fanning), whom they are trying to raise while shielding her from the past. Marion's depression appears to have made her so fragile that she no longer is able to grasp her responsibilities as a mother and wife.

Ted hires a high school student intern over the summer. Sixteen-year-old Eddie O'Hare has aspirations to follow in Cole's footsteps and becomes a successful writer. Eddie quickly realizes that his duties consist of nothing related to writing and he is there only to distract Marion.

Along the way, Eddie and Marion develop such an intimate relationship that portrays the world in a severely twisted manner. Marion sees a chilling resemblance of her dead son in Eddie, a fact of which Eddie is completely unaware.

Bridges and Basinger both prove why they have been nominated for past Oscars. Bridges in particular dominates the screen, perfectly portraying denial and tragedy in his character.

The story is somewhat slow in development, but in the end all of the pieces seem to fit perfectly. The audience's answers are finally answered toward the conclusion and they are able to sympathize with each character.

The film is powerfully tragic and even possesses a surprisingly strong comedic element. The acting alone should merit a national release, and the story lives up to John Irving's brash writing style. If you are looking for a break from the repetitive summer blockbuster, then The Door in the Floor is worth the money.