Anyone who saw Napoleon Dynamite will recognize the humor in New Zealand's Eagle vs. Shark. Another entry in the loser genre, it concerns two love-struck characters who share Dynamite's stultifying social ineptitude—and this time, they have Kiwi accents. Lily (Loren Horsley) is a young, wide-eyed woman with a screwed-up mouth who is as sweet as she is pathetic, while Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) is a monotone, bespectacled ingrate whose human barometer is so dysfunctional as to render him virtually retarded.
The exaggerated degree to which Lily and Jarrod act out their awkwardness is funny, if somewhat irritating in its all-too-familiar heavy handedness. A party Jarrod throws—for which guests dress as their favorite animals (he's an eagle, she's a shark)—is absurd, and it's taken to greater heights when Jarrod and Lily's post-party foreplay involves Jarrod showing her the collection of candles he's made. ("I guess I've got to keep creating or I'll just die," he deadpans.)
But once the establishment of characters has passed, Eagle becomes its own film—weightier and more emotional than its American predecessor. Jarrod, it turns out, has a mission: enacting revenge on the high school bully who tormented him. It also turns out he's a deadbeat dad, something Lily discovers when she follows him to his hometown, where she discovers the rest of his family, including Jarrod's bitter, wheelchair-bound father and two brothers—one dead and one who, along with his wife, hawks the hideous tracksuits in which they are constantly clad.
As Jarrod, Clement is adept at the physical comedy that elicits the loudest laughs of the film, but his character grows increasingly despicable while the long-suffering, lonely Lily is stubbornly sweet—a quality that walks a thin line between Christ-like nobility and self-hatred. Either way, by film's end, things have become complicated and sad enough that you won't have the heart to laugh at her.