2 nerdy clerks find costumes and true love

Jemaine Clement, Loren Horsley suit up in "Eagle vs. Shark," a low-key and endearing "Napoleon Dynamite"- like romance set in New Zealand.

A Kiwi nerd love story and loopy portrait of Down Under underachievers, Eagle vs. Shark offers a deadpan take on family, friendship, obsession and self-delusion.

That New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi's little flick is staged against a backdrop of tacky mini-malls, Maori worship halls, and scruffy seaside towns with spectacular landscapes - and that funny stop-motion animation pieces with apples and ants show up now and again - makes it all the more nuttily charming.

A hit at the Philadelphia Film Festival, Eagle vs. Shark traces the unlikely romance between a gawky fast-food-chain cashier, Lily (Loren Horsley), and a bespectacled game-store clerk, Jarrod (Jemaine Clement, of HBO's similarly daft Flight of the Conchords). He's impressed by her video combat skills, she's impressed by his brooding vibe, and maybe his Prince Valiant coif. Jarrod thinks he's the coolest thing going, and apparently, inexplicably, Lily thinks so, too.

The title refers to the animal personas each adopts for a costume party (Lily's the shark); other getups include track suits emblazoned with the word Awesome - an ill-fated line of sports couture hatched by Jarrod's relations - and Technicolor sleeping bags. As Lily and Jarrod court, and then break up, and as Jarrod pursues his mission of exacting vengeance on a childhood tormentor, Eagle vs. Shark examines how the expectations and realities of a relationship can jostle, and hurt, and occasionally bring joy.

"Life," says Lily, "is full of hard bits, but in between them is some lovely bits."

It's impossible not to think of that geek chef d'oeuvre, Napoleon Dynamite, while watching the shambling, straight-faced losers of Eagle vs. Shark. But the tone and tenor of Waititi's effort are quieter, gentler. This is low-key stuff, but strangely, goofily endearing.

Eagle vs. Shark *** (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Taika Waititi, photography by Adam Clark, distributed by Miramax Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.

Lily......................................................................... Loren Horsley

Jarrod. . . Jemaine Clement

Jonah. . . Brian Sergent

Parent's guide: R (sex, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse and Showcase at Ritz Center/NJ

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.