Eagle vs. Shark

Cast:
Jemaine Clement as Jarrod
Loren Horsley as Lily
Joel Tobeck as Damien
Cohen Holloway as Mason
Craig Hall as Doug Davis
Jackie van Beek as Anthea
Taika Cohen as Gordon
Rachel House as Nancy
David Fane as Eric Elisi
Morag Hills as Vinny
Brian Sergent as Jonah
Bernard Stewart as Zane

Directed by Taika Waititi

Summary:
This strangely endearing oddball take on the indie rom-com highlights some great local talent from New Zealand, particularly its loveable leads Loren Horsely and Jemaine Clement.

Story:
Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) is an arrogant video game player training for a fight with the high school bully that beat him up years earlier, while Lily (Loren Horsely) is a shy fast food clerk who falls for him. After a tryst at a costume party, they start hanging out, but when Lily accompanies Jarrod on a trip home for his grudge match, she learns why Jarrod acts like such a jerk all the time.

Analysis:
These days, quirky indie comedies are almost literally a dime a dozen and while comparisons between this New Zealand offering and “Napoleon Dynamite” might be way too easy for reasons that will be explained later, it may owe more to the outsider movies of John Hughes or Todd Solonz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” in the way it examines relationships between weird outsiders who wouldn’t seem to be good for each other if brought together in the real world.

Having lost her parents in a car crash, Lily trudges through life delivering every word with a deadpan monotone that makes her the brunt of abuse at the fast food restaurant where she rugs. The only thing that gets her through the day is when the rugged Jarrod comes in to order his daily meal. Jarrod works at a video game store in the same mall, and he’s all about putting on the façade of being cool even though obviously he’s far from it. Despite this, Lily chases after her crush, dressing up in a makeshift shark outfit to crash Jarrod’s animal costume party—as you may have guessed, his animal is the eagle—and quickly wins him over with her impressive video game fighting skills. One thing leads to another and they hook up, but he dumps her because he’s obsessed with training for a grudge match with a bully from his school days.

It only takes a few minutes to adjust to the quirky eccentricities of the main characters in Taika Waikiki’s feature-length film debut, and though there’s something really endearing about their relationship, it’s not exactly “romantic” in the traditional sense of the word. Surrounding this duo as their bizarre relationship folds is a strange menagerie of supporting characters including Lily’s older brother Damon, who doesn’t realize that his celebrity impersonations aren’t very good, and Jarrod’s even odder family, including his tracksuit wearing sister and his wheelchair-bound father, who’s been heavily depressed since the death of Jarrod’s athletic superstar brother followed by his mother abandoning the family. It’s quickly apparent why Jarrod moved away from his family, because none of them take him seriously, and he probably hopes that fighting his former school bully will help Jarrod win his family’s love and respect.

Sure, there are some similarities to “Napoleon Dynamite” in the sense that Jarrod is a similarly uncool geek trying to win the respect of those around him by acting like he’s better than everyone else. As Jarrod, Jemaine Clement (who also stars in the new HBO series “Flight of the Conchords”) is able to show far more range than other comic actors by playing up Jarrod’s boorish behavior to the point where you’re so amused by it that you can’t help but like him. Obviously, there are many real guys out there who try to escape from their emotions by acting like immature jerks, so caught up in themselves and their hobbies that they don’t realize how they’re behaving, but the way Clement plays this up makes the big reveal of why he acts this way that much more effective.

You have to wonder what Lily sees in him and feel bad for her when he starts pushing her away, and Loren Horsely’s well-rounded performance really helps you fall in love with her and helps you take her side in the third act, as it builds to Jarrod’s confrontation with his arch-nemesis and a surprisingly funny twist or two.

It’s hard to discern why “Eagle vs. Shark” works so well, but much of it has to do with the fact that it’s filled with funny bits without deliberately trying to be funny with jokes or gags. The humor flows so smoothly and naturally that you just accept that this is the characters are, and it never tries to get completely serious, which tends to be the case with indie comedies, even as it gets into the poignant moments of Jarrod trying to impress his father and gain some of the love that he continually heaps on Jarrod’s deceased brother.

Adding to the film’s charm is the primitive stop motion animation of two apples—one rotten, one eaten away—that tells a parallel story, and though it might look or sound silly at first, it all makes sense in the end when the two apples meet up.

The Bottom Line:
If you’re into quirky indie comedies that are slightly off center than “Eagle vs. Shark” should join your list of favorites, as Taika Waikiki’s oddly charming comedy traverses the vast space between John Hughes and Todd Solonz while showing how even outsiders and outcasts can find love.

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