When “Napoleon Dynamite” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 20 years ago this month, there wasn’t an opening credits sequence. It simply jumped from a black screen to a lanky, deadpan teenager waiting for the school bus.

That got some laughs.

But the moment director Jared Hess knew his film had landed with the audience was partway through, after Napoleon had secured a date for the high school dance and was walking down the street in slow motion, wearing his brown polyester thrift store suit and holding a corsage.

“The audience started to cheer,” Hess previously told the Deseret News. “I’d never been in a screening where people were cheering and clapping for a character. It was just this wash of relief and excitement.”

Even then, in that first screening, people seemed to catch on that Napoleon was an offbeat, everyman figure — the underdog you love to root for.

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That screening was in January 2004. On Wednesday, “Napoleon Dynamite” returned to Park City, Utah, for a special screening — one that commemorates two decades of the film, 30 years of Searchlight Pictures (which bought “Napoleon Dynamite”), 40 years of Sundance and the 100th anniversary of film in Utah.

This time around, the cheers started early and didn’t stop. They came in anticipation of some of the film’s greatest moments — like Napoleon’s incredible dance (in moon boots!) to Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat” that helps secure Pedro’s class president victory.

Even after two decades, people haven’t stopped rooting for Napoleon. While the film does have its critics, it provided viewers with a treasure trove of quotes and became a cultural phenomenon — one that launched the careers of Hess and his wife, “Napoleon Dynamite” co-writer Jerusha Hess.

“It was a tiny movie we made in our first tiny apartment,” Jerusha Hess recalled at the 20th-anniversary film screening Wednesday night. “We were babies. ... I can’t thank Sundance enough, you guys made our career. You’re the reason why we can afford bread today.”

Efren Ramirez (Pedro) and Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) pose for photos during the press line as members of the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” gather at Sundance in Park City for a special showing at The Ray Theatre on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

‘Napoleon Dynamite’ ... a ‘documentary’ of sorts

“Napoleon Dynamite” also launched the career of actor Jon Heder. Two years later, he appeared in “Benchwarmers,” and a year after that, he was figure-skating with Will Ferrell in “Blades of Glory.”

These days, what Heder gets recognized for depends on his location. Out West, he gets a lot of “Napoleon” love. In the East, baseball fandom shines through and it’s all about “Benchwarmers.” In the Midwest and internationally, “Blades of Glory” gets the gold.

But in Heder’s eyes, “Napoleon Dynamite” is his definitive role — and he’s proud of it.

“It’s what started everything,” he told the Deseret News ahead of the 20th-anniversary screening. “I love it. It would suck if I didn’t like the movie. But I love the characters, I love the movie.”

Shondrella Avery (LaFawnduh), Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and Efren Ramirez (Pedro) laugh as they join the audience in a screening of “Napoleon Dynamite” at Sundance in Park City at The Ray Theatre on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

When Heder first read the script, he was taken aback by the reality of it all — to the degree that he called it a “documentary” during the post-screening Q&A Wednesday night.

A prime example: When Deb tries to sell Napoleon her boondoggle keychains and he has very little interest, because, well, he “already made like infinity of those at scout camp.”

He really did.

“I taught these guys how to make them, and so in between shots I remember we were sitting there making boondoggle keychains,” Heder recalled with a laugh. “It was extremely real for me.”

And that’s a reflection of the film’s origin, drawn from the real-life stories of the Hesses, who were students at Brigham Young University when the film began to take shape.

“Everything in that movie is true. It is disappointing, you thought we were brilliant, we were not,” co-writer Jerusha Hess said during the Q&A. “We were collecting stories from our childhood and from our families and from our friends and we strung them together into a movie.”

Jerusha Hess, co-writer, talks with media as she and other members of the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” gather at Sundance in Park City for a special showing at The Ray Theatre on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

But pulling off “Napoleon Dynamite” demanded more from family and friends than the sharing of childhood memories. Cast and crew members called upon their friends and relatives to play characters in the movie.

For example, after the actor cast to play the Preston High School principal dropped out, the Hesses phoned the associate chair of their college department, Tom Lefler, and “begged him to be in this show,” Jerusha Hess recalled.

“I don’t know why you did it, but you killed it,” she said.

When it came time to shoot the film’s end-credit scene, when LaFawnduh and Kip tie the knot, the filmmakers faced yet another obstacle — “There were no Black people in Preston, Idaho,” Shondrella Avery, who plays LaFawnduh, said with a laugh.

The Hesses’ solution? Bring in Avery’s family.

Shondrella Avery (LaFawnduh) and Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) pose for photos during the press line as members of the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” gather at Sundance in Park City for a special showing at The Ray Theatre on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I was very blessed that I could have my actual real family in the movie,” Avery said, adding that her mom, a sister and two of her brothers made it in that final scene.

For Efren Ramirez, who played Pedro, the rawest part of the film came not from having a tater tot-loving teen show off some groovy dance moves to help his campaign for class president, but rather from the unexpected moment that Uncle Rico hurls a piece of steak at Napoleon’s face. “There were no stunts,” he said.

Jon Gries, who played Uncle Rico, said he asked for a “bigger piece of meat” for a “little extra weight” and launched the steak at Heder, miraculously hitting him right on the nose (literally).

Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and Jon Gries (Uncle Rico) talk with media as members of the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” gather at Sundance in Park City for a special showing at The Ray Theatre on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“He (Gries) was like, ‘All right, I gotta really chuck it,’ and Heder was like, ‘So chuck it! Gosh!’” Ramirez recalled. “And I’m behind him like, ‘Is this really gonna happen right now? I know it is an independent film, but this is really independent.’”

The steak, which “was semi-frozen so it stayed hard,” did some real damage to Heder, leaving him with bruises, said Jeremy Coon, the film’s editor and executive producer. “The rest of the shoot we had to put makeup on his nose ’cause the glasses shattered.”

“There was blood,” Heder joked.

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‘Napoleon Dynamite’ ... a story of hope

Looking back on 20 years of “Napoleon Dynamite,” it’s remarkable that the movie has such staying power. Who could’ve guessed that a movie like this — essentially a vignette of a nerdy teen’s life in the middle of Idaho — would resonate with so many people for so long?

Its magic lies in the Hesses’ truthfulness, which grounds the absurdity of the film. Who doesn’t know an Uncle Rico, longing for his high school days and selling Tupperware out of his car? Who doesn’t know someone like Kip, who met his future wife online?

It almost makes you think that somewhere (maybe in Idaho, maybe not) there’s a real-life Napoleon Dynamite, sitting on the steps of his school. He might even be hunched over his notebook, sketching a liger, his favorite animal of all time.

But at the end of the day, the most wonderful and moving thing about “Napoleon Dynamite” is that, ultimately, it’s a story of hope.

“This film is about hope, diversity, inclusion. But something that’s so great about this film,” Ramirez said, “in the very end of this movie, something great happens to every single character.”