It says a lot about a movie, particularly a romantic comedy, that you can still quote it on a weekly basis more than a decade after you first saw it. Not even particularly battle cry-worthy quotes – I’m talking jokes based on inflection or delivery as much as what went into the script. “Sounds just like him” doesn’t appear to be particularly hilarious, but it’s all in Loren Horsley’s delivery as she responds to her character Lily’s brother’s appalling impersonation of the Terminator. Similarly, there’s something about the Kiwi accent that makes this telephone exchange a lot funnier than it should be:
Jarrod (menacing): “Tell him that justice is waiting for him.”
Man on phone (cheery): “Okay, Justin. Thank you. Bye bye.”
Jarrod: No – justice. Justice.
Workshopped at Sundance and made on a budget of NZ$1.8 million, Eagle Vs Shark was Taika Waititi’s first feature film, developed in conjunction with his then-partner Loren, who came up with the character of Lily. She’s a shy burger-flipper who develops a crush on one of her regulars, Jarrod, because they have the same mole on their upper lip. She gatecrashes Jarrod’s animal-themed dress-up party and wins his… attention by being awesome at videogame Fight Man, but shrewdly letting him win. Thus begins a relationship that’s, well, deeply weird. Put simply, she’s adorkable and he’s self-obsessed.
On the romance side of the “romantic comedy” divide, Jemaine Clement’s Jarrod couldn’t be a worse pick. He’s almost irredeemably awful – the kind of insecure, always-one-upping nerd that you come across in subcultures from gaming to Goth. (The first time I watched Eagle Vs Shark was with a friend who’d just been through a break-up. She oscillated from laughing to triggered and back, because apparently Jarrod said things to Lily that she’d heard in almost the exact words from her ex.) Clement does his usual monotone, too-cool delivery, playing what feels like a more selfish and immature version of his Flight of the Conchords persona. When he shows off his collection of home-made candles, you’ll half-expect Bret to come round the corner with his guitar for a rendition of Business Time.
But despite all that, this really is Lily’s story. While Jarrod provides a lot of the comedy with his mission of vengeance and general awfulness, her raw inner strength is slowly polished as she moves along a path of self-discovery. This is especially the case in the second part of the film, when she gets away from Wellington and meets Jarrod’s family in his hometown. There, she blossoms into herself, realising people enjoy her company and she deserves better treatment than she’s received from her molemate… and the world at large. It’s one of those classic indie-flick switcheroos, where the comedy is dialled down and suddenly you realise you’re invested in the characters and… goddamn it, Taika.
Of course, I don’t want anyone going around claiming I said Eagle Vs Shark is a perfect film. It has moments that drag, it has a weird animated sequence about two apples that breaks up the live-action scenes and it – nah, they’re my only two mild criticisms. If you’re not into the kind of quirk that had American reviewers clutching at Napoleon Dynamite comparisons back when this thing hit screens, don’t blame me if you don’t like this perfect film.
Eagle Vs Shark is streaming now at SBS On Demand: