Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes Directed by Niki Caro 105 minutes Rated PG-13
Whale Rider is a lovely, evocative movie that deals with difficult issues with grace and character. This is why it's playing in your local arthouse and not the MegaMovieCompound at the mall. I saw it on a blistering August afternoon in a theater with twenty seats and no air conditioning. Everyone in the crowd, including a handful of children, was rapt throughout the entire movie. Without pandering or dumbing itself down, Whale Rider is a film that everyone can learn from and enjoy.
The film opens with a child's voice narrating over footage of a great whale moving through dark water. The voice narrates the story of Paikea, a legendary Maori hero who rode on the back of a whale. Paikea's male descendants are the chieftans of his people, and the scene switches to the modern-day birth of a pair of those descendants. The mother cries out in pain, sounding oddly like a whale. The children are twins, but the male child and the mother die, leaving behind a girl as the current chieftan's only heir. Her father names the girl Paikea, which is a boy's name. It is the first rebellious act of many in the life ahead of the infant Pai.
Pai is played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, who is in almost every scene of her acting debut, and never fails to mesmerize. Pai is stubborn, curious, and sensitive, and to top it off she is female. These are all qualities that disappoint her grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), to no end. The battle of wills between Pai and Koro, and the love beneath that battle, lies at the heart of the film. As Koro rejects Pai again and again, even though all signs point to her being the next chief despite her gender, her family and village gather around her in support.
Mainstream American cinema doesn't present many visions of life in tribal societies, so the picture Whale Rider paints for us of ancient ways cheek-by-jowl with modern ones is very refreshing. Don't be fooled, however; this isn't a movie just for the Maori people, no more than it is a feminist movie, despite all Pai achieves. If Whale Rider is propaganda, it is gloriously costumed propaganda. Every performance resonates with authenticity, from Vicky Haughton as Koro's determined wife Nanny to Cliff Curtis as Pai's father Porourangi, who abandoned her not long after her birth because of his own ambiguity toward his domineering father.
These are actors who haven't had the humanity airbrushed and personal-trained out of them, and this is a movie that relies on quiet moments to tell its tale. The dense New Zealand accents might deter some viewers, but the vibrant visuals and heartfelt realism of the story (there's even a fart joke somewhere in amongst the philosophizing) make this a movie everyone, Maori, Micmac or otherwise, can relate to. It's in a fairly limited release, so you may have to wait until it comes out on video or DVD, but Whale Rider is definitely a movie to see.