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My Favorite Taika Waititi Movie Is Still His First

"I'm a loser." "Doesn't matter."

Shot from Taika Waititi's first film Eagle vs Shark, starring Jemaine Clement and Loren Horsley

For better or for worse, this has been a pretty big year for Taika Waititi, and the lad is showing no sign of slowing down! He’s slated to direct the film adaptation of the graphic novel The Incal, a modern adaptation of 1981’s Time Bandits, and a sports-dramedy film called Next Goal Wins. What we love about Taika is how willing he is to tackle all sorts of stories, and he always brings a sense of fun, charm, and earnestness to them.

But with all that being said, my heart will always belong to his very first feature film, Eagle vs Shark. At the time of its release, critics claimed that it was a film like any other of its ilk, yet another mid-aughts twee thing that couldn’t stand on its own. Several years later, I think they were full of it and overly enamored with Napoleon Dynamite, which they compared it to ceaselessly. Sure, it’s got all the trappings for an insufferable indie that focuses too much on aesthetics with no real backbone, but even back then, Taika knew how to write a touching story.

Eagle vs Shark follows Lily, a Kiwi girl in her mid-twenties who lives with her brother and yearns for a more substantial life. She’s incredibly shy and doesn’t have many friends, if any at all, and when she isn’t working at a fast-food restaurant (where her coworkers treat her like dirt), she’s writing songs and wandering around town. One of her favorite places to stop by is the local video game store, where a guy named Jarrod works.

Now, Lily is a very endearing character, kind of like Max from Life is Strange if Max never got a chance to toughen up before her twenties. Lily is earnest to a fault, and while some wallflowery characters are almost too twee to root for, you really do feel compassion for her. But Jarrod? Jarrod is kind of a douche. He’s pretty brash and has an ego that vastly overestimates his own importance. To put it simply, he’s just an off-putting sort of guy.

Yet Lily is more than a little infatuated with him, which I can sort of understand, even though he probably doesn’t deserve her. When I was younger, I’d romanticize odd guys, too, often for just one or two things that I thought could overrule all their other flaws and foibles. And I mean, it’s Jemaine Clement; he’s a physically attractive guy even when he’s sporting a bad haircut and a dorky leather jacket.

The film follows their odd courtship, beginning with an invitation to a costume party that was definitely not meant for Lily, and moving onto a trip to Jarrod’s hometown, where he plans to settle a score with a school bully who doesn’t even remember him. I told a friend how much I loved this movie and he responded with bewilderment: “It’s such a sad, pathetic movie, I don’t see how anyone could enjoy it.”

But—call me a freak—I love movies like this. Movies that follow such unconventional people, and then give them a good ending in spite of it all. I feel like, most of the time, indies either give us acceptably quirky people who get acceptably quirky endings, or they give us “freaks” who get their just-desserts for not finding a way to fit in. In the case of Eagle vs Shark, both Lily and Jarrod get endings that are meaningful to them: Lily sticks by her convictions that Jarrod is her soulmate, and Jarrod stops playing the victim and realizes what matters to him the most.

Despite its almost whimsical tone, the film is surprisingly mature and down-to-Earth, and it takes itself seriously in the ways that matter. For instance, his family is introduced quite caustically: it’s clear that his father thinks he’s a disappointment, his sister obviously enjoys making fun of him, and my god, he’s got a daughter from a fling whom he barely even acknowledges. Yet even as he storms out of the house in a rage, the family lingers for Lily’s sake, taking the time to get to know her and ensure that she’s okay while she’s there. Their dysfunctional family isn’t just some one-note, zany plot point that gets ignored; they’re a core part of Lily growing more confident and sure of herself, as she finally finds people who accept her for who she is, while also giving back and developing a bond with Jarrod’s daughter, Vinny.

And the whole movie, glib as it might seem, handles all its pieces with this kind of care. It’s just such a charming, delightful movie, and it ends on such a lovely note, it made me cry for a good five minutes after just out of sheer joy. As we go into this new year, I implore everyone—outcasts, artists, and the luckless in love alike—to give this movie a shot.

(featured image: IFC Films)

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Madeline (she/her) is a writer and dog mom. She aims to use her writing to positively represent mixed-race people like herself, and is currently working on a novel. However, when she isn't writing, she's either battling insomnia or taking too many naps. You can read her stuff at https://madelinecwrites.com/