Watch Peluca, the Student Film That Became the Cultural Phenomenon Napoleon Dynamite (2002)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wes Anderson’s First Short Film: The Black-and-White, Jazz-Scored Bot­tle Rock­et (1992)

The First Films of Great Direc­tors: Kubrick, Cop­po­la, Scors­ese, Taran­ti­no & Truf­faut

Doo­dle­bug, Christo­pher Nolan’s First Short: What Came Before The Dark Night, Memen­to & Incep­tion (1997)

Tim Burton’s Ear­ly Stu­dent Films: King and Octo­pus & Stalk of the Cel­ery Mon­ster

The Art of Sci-Fi Book Cov­ers: From the Fan­tas­ti­cal 1920s to the Psy­che­del­ic 1960s & Beyond

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.

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