One could argue that the systematic declassification of documents in the secret male annals has been underway for some time—Ben Stiller and his pre-date ménage a une in Something About Mary springs to mind. Equally significant, I think, is that a lot of female personalities in recent movies are also the product of the male imagination, obviously acted by women but with male screenwriters as Svengalis waiting in the wings. (Amelie: male fantasy of quirky cute French chick.) I was amazed to learn that Juno was written by a woman, Diablo Cody, because the title character seems more like the work of a male writer dreaming up the rad high school girlfriend he never had, retrofitting her to like all his favorite music and be one of, what, like 16 girls on Earth who like the Melvins. Her boyfriend, on the other hand, doesn’t have any personality at all. Not a bad movie in any case. In its own way, just as much a male-oriented fantasy as Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
So who is this delightful creature we see talking to herself in a mirror at the beginning of Eagle vs. Shark, rehearsing a romantic conversation she plans to have with a scowling boy she sees every day on her job at the Meaty Boy fast food outlet? It’s Lily, who lives a sweetly eccentric existence with her cartoonist brother in the house their parents left to them. Nothing in Eagle vs. Shark feels very genuine at first. What it does feel a lot like is a New Zealand Napoleon Dynamite, which is exactly how I overheard it described by a couple of video store employees discussing it as I was walking out of the store after renting it. If I’d heard that two minutes earlier, I would have put it back.
And for its first 15 minutes or so, it really does seem as though director Taika Waititi took Napoleon Dynamite as a personal challenge to out-Napoleon Dynamite Napoleon Dynamite with its freaks and geeks and self-conscious quirkiness. But where Napoleon Dynamite coasts on its irony with nothing really at stake, ever, Eagle vs. Shark mutates into something really sweet and weird, and, though the outcome is never really in doubt, at least willing to address some bigger problems than simply winning a talent show or whatever those idiots were trying to do. Great soundtrack by The Phoenix Foundation, M. Ward, Stone Roses and others, too. It’s even better on a second viewing.