Photo of T-shirt that reads, "Your Mom Goes To College"

Pop Culture Incorporated: Lessons in Teamwork from “Napoleon Dynamite”

We intro­duced our daugh­ters to “Napoleon Dyna­mite” in all its dorky, gawky, quotable glo­ry over the week­end. Trust me, if you haven’t worked “Your mom goes to col­lege” or “Gimme some of your tots” into a con­ver­sa­tion late­ly, you’re miss­ing out.

But it’s more than just an enter­tain­ing flick. While it’s most­ly about an awk­ward Ida­ho out­sider find­ing his own path through school and his dys­func­tion­al fam­i­ly, it also reveals some basic lessons about teamwork.

At first, it seems like inter­act­ing with oth­er peo­ple might be the last thing Napoleon wants, or is capa­ble of. He imme­di­ate­ly makes it pret­ty clear what a lone wolf (or maybe a lone liger) he is, declar­ing his inde­pen­dence with his first line in the flick: A kid on the school bus asks him what he’s going to do today, and Napoleon frus­trat­ed­ly responds, “What­ev­er I feel like I want to do. GOSH!”

Napoleon is a liv­ing, mouth-breath­ing exam­ple of the impor­tance of being your­self and danc­ing to the beat of your own drum. Or in Napoleon’s case, danc­ing to some sort of not-yet-invent­ed weird thing that only slight­ly resem­bles a per­cus­sion instrument.

But as the movie unfurls and Napoleon starts to inter­act with his class­mates and fam­i­ly, some sim­ple team­work lessons emerge, that – GOSH! – even busi­ness­es can take to heart. Here are three of the flip­pin’ sweetest:

Con­nect. Napoleon starts to shift ever-so-slight­ly away from his solo approach when he makes two friends: Pedro and Deb. Improb­a­bly, his weirdo broth­er Kip and his sur­pris­ing­ly not-fake online girl­friend LaFawn­duh hit it off. Even sleazy Uncle Rico teams up with Kip to sell a Tup­per­ware knock-off. They’re awk­ward con­nec­tions, but con­nec­tions nonethe­less, and lay the ground­work for some good old-fash­ioned teamwork.

Con­tribute. Pedro’s cam­paign for class pres­i­dent offered every­body an oppor­tu­ni­ty to add some­thing to the mix. Deb sup­plied the cam­paign-swag key­chains and Pedro’s styl­ish wig. Napoleon drew the cam­paign posters. LaFawn­duh pro­vid­ed the music for Napoleon to dance to and win over the stu­dent body. Even Pedro’s cousins lent a hand, sup­port­ing the candidate’s cam­paign promise to pro­tect the lit­tler stu­dents from bul­lies. (“Pedro offers you his protection.”)

Col­lab­o­rate. The biggest les­son in team­work comes from the movie itself. With a micro­scop­ic bud­get of $400,000, every­body pitched in – by neces­si­ty. John Hed­er wove prop key­chains between scenes and drew almost all of Napoleon’s works of art. The pro­duc­er also edit­ed the movie – in his apart­ment on a Mac. Lack of resources doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean a lack of results: The movie earned $45 mil­lion in the U. S. alone.

By the time Pedro wins the pres­i­den­cy, Napoleon and Deb play teth­erball, and the cred­its roll, there’s no ques­tion that when these indi­vid­u­als worked togeth­er, they built some­thing that’s greater than the sum of its weird parts.

A movie that deliv­ers both endurable catch­phras­es and action­able tips on team­work? Lucky!

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