Preston, Idaho, basks in attention from success of movie

Monday, March 21, 2005

PRESTON, Idaho -- Talk to a Preston resident for any length of time and you're likely to hear the town's new mantra.

"There's a little bit of Napoleon in all of us," says lifelong resident Thedora Petterborg. "Who hasn't felt like that once in a while?"

And now, based on the cult following the movie "Napoleon Dynamite" has earned, the tiny city of Preston has gained a cult following all its own.

The movie, written and directed by first-time filmmaker Jared Hess and set in his hometown, has been a surprise indie hit. It has grossed $44.5 million in the United States since its debut last June and stayed popular as a DVD best seller since December.

That success has brought fans from as far away as Germany to Preston, buying thousands of dollars' worth of souvenir shirts, tetherballs and the ever-popular boondoggle key chain.

"I think it's totally remarkable," said Petterborg, who played the school secretary in the movie. "The llama, Tina, lives right across the street from us. People come by and take pictures -- they go out of their way to see Napoleon's town."

The movie's hero, Napoleon Dynamite (John Heder), is a nerdy teenager suffering the typical struggles of high school: trying to find a date, dealing with annoying relatives and holding it all together despite mocking from the popular crowd. He joins forces with friends Pedro Sanchez (Efren Ramirez) and Deb (Tina Majorino) to get Pedro elected student body president. It all culminates in a dance-off, Napoleon-style.

Hess' movie is squeaky clean, with no swearing, no potty humor and no violence. In many ways it mirrors the town, where cheerful and mostly Mormon residents introduce themselves to strangers and are quick to offer a helping hand.

Not everyone was thrilled to be living in the new capital of geek chic, though. Some residents worry the movie makes them look nerdy.

"There's probably two kinds of people. You either love it and think it's the greatest thing that happened, or you hate it and think it makes fun of us," Petterborg said. "Those of us love it because we love Jared."

Much of the movie is based on Hess' experiences in Preston, where he often trolled around with a camcorder making amateur movies. No wonder, then, that many thought "Napoleon Dynamite" was simply another of Hess' projects.

'Another no-name movie'

"Most of us didn't think anything of it at first, just another no-name movie for Jared Hess," said Stephen Baldwin, store manager for the Deseret Industries thrift shop where much of the movie's wardrobes were bought and some scenes were filmed. "But then it came out. And now college students are coming into the store to take pictures or videos, looking to purchase memorabilia."

Still, ask any local student and chances are they'll tell you they can't wait to leave Preston, a town of just 4,791 people about 100 miles north of Salt Lake City.

"High schoolers will go away for a minute but they always come back," said Pennie Christensen, executive director of Preston's Chamber of Commerce. "We're probably a bit behind the times as far as fashion, but there are beautiful homes and it's a small, tight community. People are service-oriented, considerate."

Real estate agents have reported an increase in calls from out-of-towners whose interest was piqued by the film's scenery, Christensen said. A few fans have stopped by for a visit and decided to stay.

Even more are calling, just to say hello.

"One lady called from Tennessee, saying, 'I want to thank Preston. You cleaned up the language in our town,"' Christensen said. "Before the kids there were saying things like the F-word or G-D. Now they say 'flip' and 'sweet."'

Christensen hopes the town can keep the attention coming. She's planning a Napoleon Dynamite Fest in June, complete with tetherball tournaments, a disco dance-off and a look-alike contest.

The Chamber of Commerce -- whose Web site hits spiked from an all-time high of 7,000 to 284,000 after the DVD release -- sells tour maps pointing out filming locations such as Napoleon's house, along with other souvenirs. A sign at the car dealership West Motors boasts that customers can buy a car from Pedro's dad.

Even the Happy Hands sign language club in the movie is based on the school's Good Hands club; Hess was a member while attending Preston High. Though the number of men on the team has tripled since the movie -- to three -- they continue to be targets for school bullies.

Before the flick, 17-year-old Dakotah Gordon was the only male to brave the club.

"I was the Napoleon Dynamite of the club," Gordon said. "But look at the guy-to-girl ratio -- a lot of guys want to be in the club, they're just scared to join."

The group is getting performance requests from around the nation, and a few nearby schools have gotten into a bidding war over who will score the club for an assembly first. But those who want to see the Good Hands club in action need only stop by Preston High School every day after class. The group of about 30 students gathers to practice sign language and dance to songs by Shania Twain, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.

In one movie scene, Hess used his mother's phone number in the background. Now his mom, Krismas Adams, said she gets calls all the time.

"People call and say, 'Is Napoleon there?' I always tell them that Napoleon doesn't live here, it's Pedro's house. A lot of times they laugh or hang up. But I've had a few really rewarding conversations," Adams said. "One kid from Michigan called, and we talked about Jared and the importance of sticking with his dreams."

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