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Eagle vs Shark

Film (Trailer, Excerpts, and Extras) – 2007


A perspective

Infamous for feigning sleep at the Academy Awards ceremony when the nomination for his short film Two Cars, One Night was announced, filmmaker Taika Waititi continued his singular career with this deliciously tangy, deadpan feature debut.

Starring talented local actors Loren Taylor (then known as Loren Horsley) — who co-wrote the script with Waititi — and long-time collaborator Jemaine Clement (from Flight of the Conchords) the film was work-shopped at the prestigious Sundance Institute Directors' Lab in 2005. Waititi and Clement had been writing and performing together since meeting as arts students at Victoria University. Both Waititi and Taylor attended the lab, where Taylor worked on perfecting Lily, the central character she created for the film.

Lily is a gauche, sweet-natured girl with stringy hair who is quite captivating once you get to know her - only no one ever bothers. She works as a cashier in the fast-food joint Meaty Boy and swoons over Jarrod (Clement), the self-aggrandising, clueless geek from the computer store across the mall.

Determined to score a date with Jarrod, Lily crashes his fancy dress party dressed as a shark, and takes along her brother Damon (Joel Tobeck, in droll form as a compulsive impersonator) for moral support. Jarrod, the self-styled ‘Eagle Lord,' is impressed enough with Lily's costume and gaming prowess to take her on a tour of his bedroom, where she submits, like a dying fish, to his clumsy advances.

The two misfits embark upon a bumbling relationship, which culminates in a trip to Jarrod's hometown to confront the playground bully who was his childhood nemesis. Here Jarrod's self-absorption and stupidity blossoms so mightily it threatens to drive away even the most adoring of girlfriends.

With an international following secured by the success of his short films, Waititi's feature went out into the world as a hip, assured comedy - something almost no New Zealand film has ever done - and was received globally on the same terms as offerings from other hot, young indie directors.

Capitalising on the buzz factor, Miramax was quick to pick up the film for distribution. Interestingly, for his debut feature Waititi shed any obvious signs of the strong Māori heritage that had informed his two earlier shorts (Two Cars, One Night and Tama Tu). Perhaps, bereft of this ‘exotic' (to international audiences anyway) flavour, this is a reason why some critics pigeon-holed the film as a reprise of Napoleon Dynamite, which shared its geek chic aesthetic but not a lot else.

A couple of harsh early reviews (in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter) were picked up and magnified by the New Zealand media — always eager to decry failure — but the film was favourably reviewed internationally by publications such as Premiere, USA Today and Empire magazine. The latter called the film "a comic delight destined for cult adoration."

Overall, Waititi's film was received as an offbeat celebration of misfit love, anchored by Loren Taylor's affecting performance. The film went on to win Best Screenplay at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, a Best Feature and Best Actress Award at the Newport International Film Festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

The presence of Jemaine Clement in a lead role — cast before Flight of the Conchords went supernova — will no doubt boost the film's cult status, as well as its DVD sales.

Charming music from The Phoenix Foundation underscored Waititi's consistent eye for ‘cinemagic' moments, and stop-motion animated interludes lend the film a quirky, homemade sensibility.

Filmed on locations around Wellington and Titahi Bay, with retro-chic art direction (spacies, tracksuit pants) that implies it might still be the 1980s (at least in Lily's imagination), Eagle vs Shark is an endearing look at life on the geek side, and a debut feature accomplished with aplomb.