Dir: Taiki Waititi. NZ. 2007. 93mins.

A loopy, somewhat cruel and defiantly off-centre romantic comedy, Taika Waititi’s Eagle vs Shark is a daft and occasionally painfully funny merging of the absurd and peculiar given feeling and shape from its excellent lead performances.

The first film by New Zealander Waititi was developed at the Sundance Institute. In theme and outline, the film echoes Sarah Watt’s recent Australian feature Look Both Ways. Waititi and his collaborator Loren Horsley, the lead actress who worked on the script, have a sharp affinity for their characters.

The film’s strong audience response at Sundance and Berlin suggests a natural for other festivals, specialised booking and ancillary markets. The movie should play particularly well in English-language territories both Down Under, the UK and in the US.

The film also suggests a less nightmarish, more comically inflected variation of Jane Campion’s first feature Sweetie. The heroine of Campion’s film seized on her romantic destiny by stealing away a man with curlicue shaped haircut. Likewise, Lily (Horsley), a waitress at a Wellington fast food restaurant, pursues Jarrod (Clement), a local video store enthusiast, because they have matching facial marks above their upper lips.

Following their hilarious hook up at his animal themed party, where she proves her prowess at video games, the two fall into a tentative, uncertain relationship.

Jarrod invites her to accompany him on a trip to his family’s remote, seaside New Zealand village. Lily is introduced to his comically inept family, his wheelchair bound father (Sergent), his sister (House) and her husband (Hall) and his previously unacknowledged nine-year-old daughter (Hills).

The family’s overachiever son, Jarrod’s brother Gordon (played by the director in flashback and video archival footage) died under mysterious causes. Unbeknownst to Lily, Jarrod reason for returning home is to set up a fight against a former bully (Fane) who terrorised him in high school.

The story’s not always original, and the one drawback of the script is the unfortunate tendency to sacrifice character detail in favor of comic incident. Jarrod casually, cruelly breaks up with Lily on the trip, though she’s trapped in the remote town, unable to reach her brother (Tobeck) and must wait out several days before the next bus arrives. In dealing with her grief at their break up, Lily finds she is unable to let go of Jarrod, or his peculiar family.

The movie’s grace, even humour, is finding their small doses of humanity, grace and sweetness beneath the gruff and sometimes grotesquery nature of their characters.

Waititi has a sure sense of the camera, shooting his characters slightly off-centre, though using their bodies and movement to yield a kind of symphony of different feelings, mostly about escape, wonder and connecting.

With his cinematographer Adam Clark, the two film-makers expressively draw on the strange, almost alien New Zealand topography of hills, ravines and seashores as a luscious visual counterpoint to the movie’s ideas of the offbeat and the slightly surreal. It’s a minor work, though smartly, sharply captured.

Production companies/backers
Whenua Films
Unison Films
New Zealand Film Commission

International sales
NZ Film

Ainsley Gardiner
Cliff Curtis

Executive producer
Emanuel Michael

Taika Waititi

Adam Clark

Production design
Joe Bleakley

Jonno Woodford-Robinson

The Phoenix Foundation

Main cast
Loren Horsley
Jemaine Clement
Joel Tobeck,
Brian Sergent
Craig Hall
Rachel House
Dave Fane
Craig Hall