Written by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Jemaine Clement, Loren Horsley, Craig Hall, Joel Tobeck
Falling for someone does not always make sense from an outside perspective, because the affection comes from such an internal place where it becomes no one else’s business as to how it works functionally. Narratives tend to be frustrating this way with how certain combinations fail to make any sense, but when you get a lovely protagonist to follow in the journey, it makes it all worth it. Eagle vs Shark displays this exact dynamic while also jumpstarting the career of a terrifically unique voice in filmmaking.
Working at a fast-food restaurant, Lily (Loren Horsely) has a shy demeanor and develops a big crush on Jarrod (Jermaine Clement), who earns his wage at a video game store. After attending one of his parties and a sexual encounter she agrees to go with him to his hometown as Jarrod finally wants to confront his childhood bully.
As awkward as any movie gets Eagle vs Shark banks on the idea of creating so many cringe moments but done so in an extremely comedic manner. It all begins with Lily, who just takes everything in stride. She works as a cashier and takes each day as it comes. She does not necessarily get the invitation to Jarrod’s party when it instead was delivered to her co-worker. After it gets crumpled in the trash, she picks it up and decides to dress up for the theme wearing a costume of one’s favorite animal. Upon the arrival at the party with her shark costume, the dynamic set for what her relationship with Jarrod gets established and it walks a fine balance of annoyance and comedy.
The hilarious work done in this film comes from Jarrod trying to act like some cool dude who’s too good for Lily with the rest of the film proving him to be quite the loser in reality. With all signs pointing to the contrary, Lily still has a growing affection for him, which truly shows how much she cares. From Jarrod getting rejected by almost every other female in the story and his party mostly consisting of the video game store patrons, this guy does not present the aura of coolness he believes he possesses. It only gets sadder when it shifts to Jarrod and Lily going to his hometown to do the very childish act of challenging his school bully to a bout for revenge. As they go to the small town, we learn Jarrod has a child from a previous sexual encounter, who he barely speaks to and left to his parents to take care of. The redeemable characteristics run thin with Jarrod, but it works narratively because the film knows he’s a buffoon and it just becomes cute to see Lily continually try to impress him in the process.
Lily really gets pushed in how much affection she can have for him because he treats her quite terribly. Ever since the first time she locked eyes with him, Lily knew he was the man for her, but Jarrod puts on this guard around him where he tries to purport this false masculinity, which all comes together when learning more about his upbringing and what has been ailing him for so long. Much of the reason why Jarrod does not get tiring as a character comes from the performance of Jermaine Clement. He takes on this braggadocious character with an air of earnestness to the highest level of compassion one possibly could. He blends the arrogance with the nerdiness to show this whole act does not truly represent his character, but rather an immature guy trying to win the approval of other people around him. It explains why Lily continues to deal with his nonsense even when she obviously can do better in so many ways.
Eagle vs Shark gave the world its first feature film look at Taika Waititi and the brand of comedy he would provide. He works so well within this awkward style of comedy as he highlights specifically New Zealand issues with his stories. They have an air of familiarity but also feel unique to his homeland. As his feature film debut, he makes a stamp for his directing and writing style to provide a different level of wit some may never experience. Just as with his other New Zealand-based films, he highlights the beautiful countryside that makes it a tourist destination but also shows the less glamorous locations to show the reality of how the people live.
Awkward to the end but with a generous layer of sweetness and comedy to level it all out, Eagle vs Shark serves as a solid introduction for Taika Waititi and one to watch if you want to experience the origins of this acclaimed filmmaker. He makes a wonderful blend of a film, which continually knocks down its arrogant character while also creating a character in Lily who becomes easy to root for despite her shoddy taste in partners. It makes for a lovely experience overall and another adventure into New Zealand.