PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 24: (L–R) Jerusha Hess, Jon Heder, Shondrella Avery, Efren Ramirez, and Jon Gries attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Napoleon Dynamite” screening at The Ray on January 24, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Stephanie Ornelas
“When we first started thinking about how we were going to commemorate the 40th Edition of the Festival, it was a pretty daunting task when you think about how many incredible films and filmmakers have emerged over the decades at this Festival,” says John Nein, senior programmer at Sundance Institute. “Where do you even start?”
You start with Napoleon Dynamite.
Nein took the stage January 24 at The Ray in Park City, Utah, during the 2024 Sundance Film Festival just before the screening of the beloved cult classic, one of eight films chosen for the 40th Edition Programming and Events. Nein explains to the elated audience that this is a year of milestones both for the film, Utah, and the Festival.
“We had the 40th edition of the Festival, the 20th anniversary of Napoleon Dynamite, the 30th anniversary of Searchlight Pictures, and the 100th anniversary of Filmed in Utah. Napoleon Dynamite has such a strong connection to Utah,” says Nein.
“All of those reasons were great. But the most compelling reason — what really tipped the scales — was that when you think about programming only eight features, you’re really trying to find a balance. You’re really trying to find different kinds of films. We were looking at this mix and thinking, ‘You know, we kind of missed something… we do not have a movie with a liger,” says Nein. And the audience erupts into laughter.
“I want to thank Searchlight for making this celebration what it is. They jumped in with the kind of enthusiasm that Napoleon would definitely admire, bringing out all the special guests who are with us tonight and, without hesitation, agreed to create a brand-new 4K scanned digital remaster.”
Festivalgoers were thrust back two decades when they filled The Ray, clapping and cheering as though it were 2004 all over again. While some were doing iconic dances in their seats, others were brought to tears watching the film. It was almost as if everyone in the room was thinking about who they were when this film came out. And after the screening, they were over the moon when the original cast joined screenwriter Jerusha Hess on the stage.
“My actors who are here, you guys were our friends from film school who we begged to be in this movie, and you guys came with the coolest version of it,” says Hess.
When an audience member asked the cast what it was like to see the film again at the Festival, Shondrella Avery, who plays Lafawnduh, says, “It’s very surreal. I want to thank you all. We love you so much. It’s very humbling. One thing about storytelling is, it’s about being present. So, the story itself was already present to us. When I landed [in Utah], Jeremy [Coon] took me to the set, and I shot the scene where I give Kip the necklace and I pimped him out. I had already made up my mind that I loved him before I got there. When the words are on the page, you just envelop them.”
Efren Ramirez, who plays the hilarious Pedro, made it a point to thank and acknowledge Sundance Institute while he was on stage: “We also want to thank Sundance for giving us this opportunity. And not only for being a part of the family now, but being here for all the new filmmakers.”
Hess looks back at the night the film premiered, remembering how there was a bidding war for the film immediately after.
“It was the most wild ride. And we are so pumped to be here tonight to celebrate. I can’t thank Sundance enough. You guys made our careers. You’re the reason why we can afford bread today. [Sundance] launched us.”
While director Jared Hess couldn’t make it to the screening, he did make a video appearance at one memorable location: Napoleon’s house.
“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years already. I’ll never forget our first screening at the Library at Sundance. We had never shown the film before,” Hess says. “I was dry-heaving. And we didn’t have the opening credit sequence. It literally went from a black screen to Napoleon standing in front of this house right here. I remember we were sitting at the back of the theater, super nervous. Lo and behold, the audience immediately started cheering when Napoleon came on the screen, and all my nerves went away. Everybody enjoyed the film, and the rest was history.”
One audience member asked the cast members if they could offer any advice on finding their voice and their people.
“You think that once you find it, that’s it, and you stop right there. But it’s a continuation of searching and exploring, and you really have to enter this feeling of insecurity and doubt that’s going to give you the courage to create even more so,” says Ramirez. “Even now, we’re still trying to guess and figure it out. You watch this film, and it is about hope, diversity, and inclusion. At the end of this movie, something great happens to everyone. And 20 years later, here we are.”
“When Jared first came to me with the script for the short, and then the feature, I just remember at the time, everybody’s asking me, ‘How did you get here?’ And I don’t know how else to describe the perfect alignment of stars,” says Jon Heder, who plays Napoleon.
“Never have I been blessed and so lucky to be 100% in sync with the director, with the character. I read it, and I was like, ‘Jared, this is me and my younger brothers.’ The line that got me was when [Napoleon] is telling Deb as she’s selling boondoggle keychains: ‘I already made like infinity of those at Scout camp.’ And I said, ‘Jared, I did!’
“I made tons of those at camp in real life,” continues Heder. “This movie is basically a documentary.”