Ten years ago, very few people had heard of Taika Waititi (and not just because he signed his movies as Taika Cohen back then). Eagle vs Shark was a respectable indie hit, but Waititi's first feature film was a little too oddball to appeal to the masses. Even so, I loved the quirkiness of it and I've been following Waititi's career closely ever since. In all those years I never really revisited Eagle vs Shark though, so I was eager to give the film another whirl and see whether it had kept its original appeal.
Saying Taika Waititi is a household name is probably pushing it a little, but directing the third film in one of Marvel's biggest franchises (ie Thor: Ragnarok) definitely upped his status. Together with partner in crime Jemaine Clement, Waititi gave a voice (love those juicy accents) and a face to New Zealand cinema and more specifically Maori culture, which tends to feature prominently in his films. In that sense Waititi has become somewhat of an ambassador, though no doubt he preaches in the kindest and least denouncing way possible.
Eagle vs Shark is a perfect example of the dry and understated wit that drives Waititi's films. Even though things are pretty bonkers and out there, the tone of the film is always subdued and straight-faced. Waititi loves exploiting this contrast and much of the comedy is directly derived from it. While Eagle vs Shark is often compared to films like Napoleon Dynamite or Me and You and Everyone We Know, this is what sets it apart from its peers and what gives the film its own, unique flavor.
The story revolves around Lily, a shy wallflower who fancies one of the customers (Jarrod) that frequents the burger joint she works for. When she gets fired from work, she decides it's time to take a little risk and she invites herself to Jarrod's party. Once there she manages to impress him with her gaming skills and the two start dating. Jarrod has a troubled history though and when he tells her of his plans to take revenge on his high school bully, Lily has to decide whether to walk or support his insane idea.
Visually it's pretty much what you'd expect from a film like this. Stark camera work, smart framing and some harsh edits accentuate the silliness of certain scenes, while the New Zealand setting is used to good effect, softening the bite of the comedy. Slightly more surprising are the charming stop motion scenes that tell a parallel story, roughly foreshadowing the events in the main narrative. Together these scenes form a fine little short film within the main film. While the cinematography isn't exactly spectacular or mind-blowing, it is very functional and integral to the way the film turned out.
The soundtrack is less defining, though it does suit the film well. It's hardly surprising that Waititi opted for a more upbeat indie pop/rock sound, as it is somewhat the norm for this type of indie comedy. It's really not the kind of music I would listen to outside the context of this film, but it gives Eagle vs Shark a nice and welcoming vibe and it too helps to soften some of the more edgy comedy bits. While I tend to prefer more leading and outspoken soundtracks, there's really nothing negative to say here.
The casting on the other hand was absolutely crucial to the success of the film. If you're familiar with the work of Jemaine Clement you should know what to expect. He is absolutely great here, but it's really Loren Horsley's stellar performance that manages to provide the perfect counter balance to Clement's character. As a duo they are simply magnificent, finding the exact right tone to balance comedy and drama, without compromising on either genre. The rest of the cast is on point too, though they are mostly there to provide comic relief.
Eagle vs Shark is a dramady that avoids the usual pitfalls of the genre. Most dramadies end up cannibalizing their own perks, Waititi succeeds in hitting that precarious balance where characters can be idiotic, funny and heart warming, all at the same time. Clement's character my be an ass at times, the comedy may turn some of the characters into downright caricatures, but everything is handled with so much heart and compassion that you can't help but fall in love with this crew of misfits.
Waititi's first feature is a perfect introduction to his body of work. There's loads of quirky comedy, the delivery is dry and disorienting, but the characters have soul and even though the film keeps throwing problems their way, it never gets too heavy-handed. Clement and Horsley do an amazing job and the film is funny from start to finish, another thing you can't take for granted with most comedies. If you haven't seen this one yet, there's little harm in giving it a fair try, I'm pretty sure most people won't be disappointed.