(On TV, February 2019) I’m certainly not the only (North-) American cinephile for whom writer/director Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows was a revelation, and who started looking for his earlier work. While I’m still looking for Boy, I was lucky enough to catch Waititi’s first feature-length film Eagle vs. Shark on TV. The good news is that despite its low budget and limited production means, Eagle vs. Shark manages to be a striking, film-literate take on romantic comedy tropes. There’s quite a bit of kinship between this film and Waititi’s own later Hunt for the Wilderpeople in that it defies expectations, plays with the medium and features strong character work in an atmosphere that’s not afraid to reach for absurdity at times. Eagle vs. Shark may take place in small-town New Zealand, but it’s exceptionally accessible to international audiences. Well, if they can stand it, because the not-so-good news is that cringing and proxy humiliation are the film’s favourite emotions as it goes out of its way to make viewers feel embarrassed for its lead characters. The closest analogue I can find is Napoleon Dynamite, and that’s not necessarily a recommendation. The male lead is screwed up, the female lead is screwed up (albeit not as unpleasantly so), the lead’s entire family is spectacularly screwed-up and this is a film all about them. There’s no way out until the end. Waititi cameos as the film’s lone admirable character—and he’s long dead in the narrative. Jemaine Clement is a comic treasure (his voice alone is worth preserving for future generations), but he seemingly delights in making his character as unpleasant as humanly possible. There are clear limits to how a non-stop cringe fest can be enjoyable, especially when the audience spends most of the film screaming at the heroine to GET OUT OF THERE and forget about the protagonist. That’s not exactly the best set of ingredients for a heartwarming comedy (indeed, by the final reconciliation we’re not left entirely happy), so consider yourself fairly warned about the film’s effectiveness if that’s not your cup of tea. Still, I’m rather glad that I caught Eagle vs. Shark even if I have no intention of seeing it again. I think that Waititi is undeniably brilliant, and having a look at this early effort was worth the trouble … and the second-hand embarrassment.