Indie Sundance buzz-flick Eagle vs. Shark got tagged "the Napoleon Dynamite of New Zealand" -- and the comparison is apt. Writer-director Taika Cohen's film is the latest entry in post-ironic Loser Cinema, an emotionally detached subgenre peopled by unselfconscious nerdy anti-heroes, where pathos and excruciating awkwardness are intermingled with gags (both by the protagonists and at their expense).
I was among the viewers baffled by Napoleon Dynamite, and just slightly amused by its strategy to avoid conventional entertainment. Yet, while noting the stylistic and narrative similarities to Napoleon, I found Eagle vs. Shark to be a warmer and sweeter story, even as it slips into some of the genre's pitfalls.
Eagle offers a deliberately quirky romance, and like Napoleon stretches a virtually nonexistent plot into a ramble through the intersecting lives of small-town nobodies. It teeters between presenting its characters as figures of fun and offering us sympathetic sad souls fumbling through the world of better-looking and more socially adept individuals.
Our lonely girl is Lily (Loren Horsley), a sad-eyed waif with a crooked smile and shy winsome manner. She works at a fast-food hamburger chain and pines for a fellow mall-drone. The object of her desire, Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), is a virtual caricature of the clueless dweeb: slack-jawed, sporting tinted aviator glasses and a shaggy mullet, and awkward to the point of rudeness.
Lily invites herself to Jarrod's "come as your favorite animal" party. There, Jarrod remarks favorably on her shark outfit, and is grudgingly impressed when Lily excels at the Fightman video-game challenge. (Lily is less adept at naming her avatar, choosing the moribund mouthful "dangerous person.")
The two hook up (blink, and you'll miss it) -- and then begin a sort-of relationship, traveling to Jarrod's hometown, and bunking down with his oddball extended family. Jarrod is on a "revenge mission" involving a childhood bully; in his single-mindedness he neglects Lily, who is forced to befriend his relatives. While intriguing, these supporting characters are skittered over, mostly for laughs.
Since Lily is kind (and pretty, behind her nerd tics), she's our point of entry in the wafer-thin romance. Jarrod is a self-centered jerk, but Cohen suggests that his unlikable exterior is a shield, like his eagle party costume or his champion Fightman persona. Regardless, his unpleasantness is off-putting, right up to the end.
Rather than build a better emotional case for Jarrod -- intellectually we can surmise his pain, but we never feel it -- Cohen reaches for an unlikely film-school trick: stop-motion animation. He uses the technique as Lily and Jarrod resolve their relationship, filming a pair of sleeping bags sliding together across the countryside. In case we don't get the obviousness of two overlooked sad sacks (literally) finding each other, Cohen also intercuts a separate storyline in which the protagonists are portrayed as discarded apple cores. (No, really.) It's cute, if amateurish, but it only detracts from what little emotional connection Eagle offers.
Whether Eagle finds a cult audience like Napoleon did remains to be seen. But those looking for an offbeat, occasionally funny, occasionally frustrating writ-small romance may find Jarrod and Lily amusing companions for 90 minutes.
Starts Fri., July 27.