You could say that Jared and Jerusha Hess got lucky. When first the husband-and-wife team got the chance to make a feature, it turned out to be Napoleon Dynamite, the movie that launched a million “VOTE FOR PEDRO” shirts. But that visually, narratively, and culturally askew tale didn’t emerge fully formed into the theaters. Nor did its title character, an extravagantly nerdy and savagely defensive high-school student in small-town Idaho. Napoleon Dynamite has a predecessor in Peluca, the short film Jared Hess made for an assignment at Brigham Young University’s film school. Napoleon Dynamite himself has a predecessor in Seth, whose curly hair, enormous spectacles, severe awkwardness, and penchant for thrifting and faux cursing will look familiar indeed.
Peluca appears to have much the same to relationship to Napoleon Dynamite as Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket short has to the feature version. Both were shot in black-and-white in locales their filmmakers clearly know well, both are memorably scored (Anderson uses jazz, Hess uses Burt Bacharach), and both tell in a basic form stories that would later unfold to their full cinematic length.
Just as Bottle Rocket, the short, stars Owen and Luke Wilson, who would go on to reprise their roles and gain fame thereafter, Jon Heder played Seth in Peluca before playing Napoleon Dynamite. And just as there’s little obvious difference between the two versions of the character besides their names, the distinctiveness of Hess’ cinematic sensibility shows through in Peluca just as it would, to a much wider audience, in Napoleon Dynamite.
The Hesses once drew frequent comparisons to Anderson, though the past decade and a half has exposed their cinematic enterprises as entirely different. Their second feature Nacho Libre, a Mexican wrestling comedy starring Jack Black, fit comfortably enough into the Hollywood zone of adolescent goofiness. But New Yorker film critic Richard Brody saw something deeper, calling it “the strangest American religious film since The Last Temptation of Christ,” one that “presents a case for nothing less than Catholic-Protestant reconciliation.” The Hesses’ third feature Gentlemen Broncos, the story of a young aspiring science-fiction writer in northern Utah, went almost completely ignored, but Brody deemed it an “even more ecstatic and personal exploration — in loopy, gross-out comic form — of the essence of faith in cosmic religious vision itself, and the ease with which those visions can be perverted to worldly ends.”
Brody continues to speak for the cinephiles who’ve paid to the work of Jared and Jerusha Hess ever more attention, not less, since Napoleon Dynamite. 2015’s Don Verdean, about a crooked Biblical archaeologist, is “a purer, stranger, and more dangerous religious vision than the three films that preceded it.” 2016’s Masterminds, a Hessian treatment of a real-life North Carolina heist gone wrong due to sheer incompetence, “has the religious intensity and spiritual resonance that marks all of Hess’s other films” and “extends his vision into darker corners of existence than he had formerly contemplated.” Considering that picture, Brody sees “a wide-eyed frontality to Hess’s filmmaking, including face-to-face set pieces and action scenes done in wide and static tableaux that suggest a kinship with the transcendental cinema of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer.” And from the right critical perspective, we can see it in Peluca as well.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.