When folks around the office started quoting lines from Napoleon Dynamite, (well, quasi-quoting: "Get your own tots" was really "Get your own" - the tots being implied), I figured I needed to break down and watch this cult sleeper. I originally had put it on the "not enough time" list because the previews just depressed me, and Ebert, my guiding light with the exception of foreign films, didn't like it. But, when I praised Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle in front of some of the young-uns in a hallway gathering, I got a Napolean-esque: "Dude, Harold sucks. See Napoleon. Gosh!" And that clinched it.
Nonetheless, I sat down expecting an excruciating evisceration of that particular clique of nerd-dom (there are many stratified layers of that world, a few of which I eternally belong to). It ended up being excruciating, but wonderfully so and only because it was so honest and accurate about the kind of nerds Napoleon and his brother are. Which points out a truth about fiction: If a character or situation is portrayed honestly, then you needn't worry about it being exploitive, mean, or voyeuristic. Ebert's problem was he felt it was all of those - that we were meant to laugh at Napoleon and his gang, not with them. This film manages to deliver both kinds of laughs, but what's magnificent is all the laughs at Napoleon's expense are really boomerangs, and eventually you realize you're laughing at yourself, whether you know it or not.
Stephen King once wrote, and I paraphrase badly here, that every character, and every real person for that matter, is the star of the story in their own mind. Thus, when writing bad guys you have to realize that to themselves they're not bad and that their actions are justifiable. Napoleon - not a bad guy by any stretch - sucks you into his world, and that's why the laughs come back at you. In his world, he's the normal one, with the right viewpoint, and everyone else is messed up. It's a rare film that can do that. Try to list a few for yourself, and I bet you don't get past your fingers to your toes, or perhaps you won't even leave one hand.
I think the honesty of Napoleon Dynamite is proven by the fact that anyone who sees it can immediately think of the Napoleon from their high school. The Napoleon in my school was named Rodney, who oddly enough had a white-guy fro like Napoleon. One of my fonder memories of him was he was being mercilessly teased at lunch (as usual), this time about the sheer amount of food he put into his mouth for each bite. After a few minutes of this, with simple aplomb, Rodney opened his mouth as wide as possible, and the whole bolus dropped out of his mouth and hit the plate with a wet whack. It was still in the shape of his mouth, the ridges from the roof of his mouth clearly visible with teeth imprints lining each side. Totally gross. His tormentors left the table nearly immediately (perhaps they only paused long enough to stave off vomiting). Rodney popped the mass back into his mouth, and chewed on as if nothing had happened. I've always admired him for that.
Napoleon Dynamite is also universal in its appeal, and is a kid-friendly PG. My daughter, who's eight, laughed so hard at a couple scenes that we had to stop the DVD to allow her to recover. What's also telling is that during many other movies, if something is oblique or confusing - like a social situation or a story development - she'll ask us what's going on (for an interpretation). She didn't have to ask a single question during Napoleon Dynamite. The filmmakers have simply nailed Napoleon's world, simply and directly - right down to the 80s decor.
If you've got the time, an interesting set of bookends for a movie festival would be Napoleon Dynamite and Forrest Gump, in which the nether ends of the spectrum on the theme "misfit meets the real world" are presented in their most realistic and most idealized forms.