If I described a film as "Napoleon Dynamite meets When Harry Met Sally," would that be enough to pique your interest? How about if I added that it was an oddball and off-kilter little indie from the fine folks down in New Zealand; would that make the idea seem more palatable? Well, to be honest, if you threw those descriptions at me as I was sitting down to watch Eagle vs. Shark, I'd probably roll my eyes, stifle a sigh and prepare myself for a film as familiar as it is unnecessary.
But like I always say: That's why we watch the movies. Because despite some over-quirky trappings and a fairly familiar sense of weird humor, Eagle vs. Shark is (in some ways) even better than Napoleon Dynamite -- the film which Eagle vs. Shark will be compared with most frequently. (I definitely enjoyed Napoleon, but it seemed to harbor a mild contempt for its characters, whereas Eagle most definitely does not.) Both films are set in exotically bland locales that are populated by humorously askew denizens who spew some seriously arcane conversations at one another. But there's a real sense of sweetness to this Kiwi import that elevates it beyond many of its ilk -- and the actors are really good. There's not much more to the plot of Eagle vs. Shark than this: Sweet-natured but painfully awkward fast food slinger Lily has a mad crush on Jarrod, a mulleted mega-nerd who has never really matured past his high school stage of uncomfortable manhood. Lily loses her lame job, hooks up with Jarrod at a video game party and joins her new boyfriend on a road trip to his childhood home, where he aims to settle a very old (and very silly) score with a schoolyard bully from years past. Most of the movie deals with Lily's disappointment when Jarrod behaves like an immature wiener, and the ways in which she bonds with his unquestionably eccentric extended family.
Writer/director Taika Waititi (also well-known as a comedian in his native New Zealand) has no qualms about displaying his characters in a weird, silly or sometimes unflattering light. These are awkward and almost achingly strange little people, but they're also real people who struggle through the same stresses and miseries we all deal with -- although hopefully you're a little more socially-adjusted than are Lilly, Jarrod and the rest of their Kiwi clan.
At times we're allowed to laugh at these lovestruck misfits, but there's a real sense of affection on display as well. The director seems to be saying "Yep, I knew all these nutjobs when I was growing up (heck, maybe I even was one), but that doesn't make them any less important than some well-scrubbed model types who always say the right things and enjoy nothing but wonderfully flawless romances."
The humor is fast-paced and character-based, the two leads (Loren Horsley as Lily and Jemaine Clement as Jarrod) are nothing short of hilarious, and there's a real rustic air of reality to be found in Eagle vs. Shark. OK, maybe it's more of a tongue-in-cheek hyper-reality, but it's pretty obvious that this movie comes from a sincere and authentic place ... plus it's just reassuring to know that there really is someone out there for everyone; you just have to keep plugging away and believe in yourself, no matter how goofy and awkward you might feel.