Eagle vs Shark

Eagle vs Shark


Reviewed by: Ben Sillis

The comparisons of Eagle Vs Shark with Napoleon Dynamite were inevitable: the socially crippled protagonists, oddball relatives selling dodgy products door to door, and backyard "fight" training reeking of Napoleon's brother's aspirations to be a cage fighter, amongst other elements. There's no doubt the latter is a great film to draw from, but unfortunately the parallels often border on the derivative - quirky isn't quite so quirky if it's been done before.

Awkward Lily (co-creator Loren Horsley) works in a fast food store long beyond the age it's acceptable to do so, and harbours a crush on geeky video game clerk Jarrod ("She is the best female Fightman player I have ever met", he says when introducing her proudly to his friends). After the couple get together at a party, Lily accompanies him on his trip home to his family, and on his quest to take vengeance on a former high school bully.

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What follows is another trip into the middle of nowhere, which in some respects you can't help but feel you've seen before. As Jarrod, Jermaine Clement's dorkish performance is a xerox of Jon Heder's, from the pretentious statements like "If I stop creating, I'll die" to the stooped running and venting of feeble frustration by hitting any and every inanimate object. His family and friends are suitably weird, from his shell suit sporting sister to his hacker friend whose computer is plagued by a "virus" of pornographic pop ups.

It's not doomed for this reason, however. Napoleon Dynamite was so successful because despite its bizarre hero, much of it rang true. Napoleon's high school was far more realistic than any Hollywood teen flick, with their busty cheerleaders and jocks with rippling muscles. Even the popular kids were just that - kids who worked at the checkout counter at the local supermarket. It's this down to earth feel which Eagle vs Shark best emulates, from the "cool" girl Jenny, Lily's co-worker, still spot-ridden and rather unattractive, to the simple but instantly recognisable "Ashley Is Gay" scrawled on the wall of the run down bus shelter.

Eagle vs Shark comes out of its predecessor's shadow in some respects too. Jarrod, who holds video games parties to show off his own skills, is far more unpleasant than Napoleon, dumping Lily during the middle of her trip and leaving her stranded until the bus arrives the next week. He's far too busy with his "training" and pursuing his brother's unobtainable fiancee for such trifles.

And despite the film's obvious similarities, it's as entrenched in native New Zealand culture as Whale Rider is, from the horses grazing in the fields to the underlying racial tensions. Jarod's nemesis, Eric, is Samoan, and debut director Taika Waititi plays on this clash in a hilarious confrontation which I suspect might be all the more resonant were I Antipodean.

Ultimately, it's much more a love story, as Lily and Jarrod, despite everything, find they share much more than a mole on their upper lips. And you can't help but fall for Lily's innate goodness. She never complains, even when she's fired from her job in the cruellest of fashions ("Some people don't even have sleeping bags"). As she puts it, she looks for all the "lovely bits" between all the bad in life, and sees good in everyone, even Jarrod. It's a wonderful performance from Horsley, and it's a great pity that the film doesn't focus more on her.

Love, life and youth are themes that are especially poignant in a country with something of a crisis, as young suicides soar. As it turns out, Jarrod's athletic brother killed himself, in part because his father pushed him so hard to succeed, and it is to the film's credit that this underlying dark theme is not trivialised by the film's light nature.

But homebrew versions of American indie hits aren't the vehicle for all of this. It's a shame that the New Zealand Film Commission has resorted to this to reach a wider audience: you can spend the entire time spotting the parallels (as this review has) when you could be soaking in the delightful Kiwi mis en scene instead. What's next? Pommie Darko? No unhinged teenage characters plagued by talking demon kangaroos please.

Reviewed on: 28 Jul 2007
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Socially awkward adventures in love.
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Director: Taika Cohen

Writer: Taika Cohen

Starring: Loren Horsley, Jemaine Clement, David Fane, Chelsie Preston-Crayford, Tanea Heke, Taika Cohen

Year: 2007

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: New Zealand


CFF 2007
Sundance 2007

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Napoleon Dynamite