I heard about Eagle vs. Shark before I even saw it. It was 2007 and I was on vacation in Nice. It was my first trip abroad and I was staying in a hostel, my first time in one of those, too (fortunately, I missed seeing the 2005 movie under that name or I may not have been so keen on the idea). The hostel was set up almost like a college dorm room…only there were no doors and it felt like a bright, open cave with beds where air blew in and you had views of the city and sea. It was there I met Shay and Sera, brother and sister travel mates around my age from New Zealand. We became instant travel buddies. We pal’d around the hostel and took a day trip to Antibes together, enjoying the rocky beach and taking photos of each other swimming in the ocean. They had rented a car and were traveling all across Europe together, stopping wherever suited them. Before anyone I knew (myself included) heard about Skype, I found out about it through Shay and Sera, who used it on their laptop to keep in touch with their parents. I also heard about a movie which would become a permanent indie favorite of mine, Eagle vs Shark.
It came out that year in 2007, right around the time of my trip and also around the time that Eagle vs. Shark actor Jemaine Clement’s TV show, Flight of the Concords first aired on HBO in the United States. I had never heard of Clement, no one I knew had, but he was big enough in New Zealand at the time that Shay and Sera were already fans. When I was back in the United States and I had a chance to see it, I watched Eagle vs Shark on my own. It got me instantly.
Twenty-something Lily (Loren Horsley – now Loren Taylor) works in a fast foot restaurant where she is either ignored or laughed at by her co-workers because she is timid, wistful, a bit nerdy, and clearly different from the rest of them. Getting her through the greasy, unfriendly 9 to 5 is the eagerly anticipated moment each day when her crush walks in for lunch. He is Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), an equally nerdy video game enthusiast who is completely oblivious to Lily’s affection. Instead, he invites one of her snooty, popular co-workers to the “dress as your favorite animal party” that he is hosting, with a hand drawn invitation she promptly laughs at and throws in the trash. Lily retrieves it and attends in her place, dressed as a shark, impressing Jarrod, who has come as an eagle. They begin a relationship, which is instantly tested by a trip together back to Jarrod’s hometown where he has plans to (literally) battle his nemesis, a bully who tormented him in high school…
If you haven’t gathered already from the plot description, this is a quirky film, where you are encouraged to laugh with the offbeat antics of the two leads, yet, unlike Lily’s co-workers, you never feel like laughing at them. Their situation as outcasts, each in their own way, is recognizable to anyone who ever felt a bit different from their peers.
For a comedy, there are some incredibly poignant, sweet, and sad moments. The relationship between Lily and her brother Damon (Joel Tobeck) especially knocks on my heart.
Lily’s situation seems all the more lonely and her desire for a connection with Jarrod all the more understandable considering that she is never shown in the film to have a true friend or confidante of her own other than Damon. This omission manages to make Lily and Damon’s relationship seem all the more meaningful. It’s revealed that their parents have passed away from heart attacks and Damon and Lily only really have each other. When Lily gets fired from her job, Damon draws her a picture of a cat fishing to cheer her up. Her sort of sad, but grateful “thanks Damon, I like that a lot” at the cute, but artistically challenged drawing, brings me to tears every time. Their easy, loving rapport is the epitome of what I, an only child, always hoped having a big brother was like. You get the sense that Damon is a lot like Lily, a little different, maybe ridiculed too. They are similar in temperament and humor; Damon’s corny impressions of celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lily’s sincere delight at them is one of the most endearing parts of the film.
While Damon and Lily are similar, Jarrod and Lily are clearly “different fruit from the same tree” (lyrics to a wistfully sweet song musically inclined Lily is working on). Despite being soft spoken, Lily appears to have a much stronger sense of self, acknowledging her shortcomings (she’s not an exceptional hula hooper) and downplaying her strengths (she’s a latent video game prodigy). Conversely, Jarrod is histrionic, dominates the conversation, and seems to be in a constant state of agitation. He is insecure about living in the shadow of his deceased brother (played by the film’s writer and director Taika Waititi) and, as such, feels the need to brag about and over exaggerate his every accomplishment. Still, they understand each other. Different fruit, same tree.
To me, this is a masterpiece of underdog experiences rolled into a beautiful package wrapped in New Zealand’s green magnificence, a sweetly wistful score, and the occasional scene of whimsical claymation, but when it came out it received mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes proclaimed that it needed to “distinguish itself from other precious, Napoleon Dynamite-ish comedies’ moments.”  I think reviews of this type have entirely missed the point. While Eagle vs Shark is billed as a romantic comedy and lives up to it, that is not all that it is. Quirkiness and curly haired, bespectacled leads aside, Napoleon Dynamite and Eagle vs. Shark are two completely different animals (pun intended). While the former has sympathetic, underdog characters, it never stands still or lets you stop laughing long enough to completely break your heart. Eagle vs. Shark sort of takes its time through that aching place everyone who has been bullied has lived in. It doesn’t leave us there, though, but continues on into the light, through the breeze rolling across the grassy hills, on a dreamy, whimsical, delightfully corny, and hilarious journey. Somewhere along the way it reminds us how beautiful it can be when you realize your life is your own to live and you choose the people who matter in it.
At the time of this review, Eagle Vs. Shark is available to watch on Netflix streaming.
Eagle Vs. Shark‘s Writer/director Taika Waititi and lead actor Jemaine Clement also co-directed and starred in the horror vampire comedy spoof What We Do in the Shadows together (which, like this, is completely brilliant).
I had no idea until writing this that Waititi also directed Thor: Ragnarok, wrote and directed a scene in Dr. Strange, and is set to write and direct the upcoming Thor movie, too…which is quite a jump from this movie, but I’m definitely happy that such a great write and director joined the Marvel film family!
Songs by Luke Buda, The Phoenix Foundation, and The Stone Roses make up the majority of the soundtrack.
This review is part of the Always a Bridesmaid Film Challenge and Blogathon for July 28: Favorite Character Who is a Main Character’s Sibling (Damon)