Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) arrived in the world amid much woe, and before she'd said her first word she was already a crushing disappointment to her family. Pai's mother and twin brother—the brother who'd been slated to inherit the chiefhood of their Maori tribe—both died in childbirth, tearing Pai's family apart. Grief-stricken, her father fled for foreign lands, leaving her to be raised by her fiercely patriarchal grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), who grew to love her and detest her in seemingly equal measure. Eleven years on, Pai has never given up trying to earn her grandfather's respect, even as he has begun to gather all of the firstborn sons of their coastal New Zealand village in a desperate bid to find an heir for the power that rightly belongs to Pai. Unfortunately, the more poor Pai struggles to be a part of Koro's world—trying to sit in on his lessons to the motley crew of boys, etc.—the more she incenses her grandfather.
Niki Caro's third feature, Whale Rider, is based on a novel by Maori author Witi Ihimaera and casually introduces us to Maori custom even as we're swept along in the kitchen-sink drama of Pai's family; in one early scene Koro and his estranged son, Pai's father, meet for the first time in what is apparently years and rush to each other to press their noses together. It is a surprising ritual to American eyes, but there's something sadly universal about the way that even this intimate gesture doesn't begin to bridge the distance between them. Pai's tale is geographically specific, as she struggles to master chants and dances and fighting techniques that no kid on these shores is likely to have heard of, but she is also every kid who's ever struggled to master baseball or auto repair in hopes of winning a smile from the glowering old family patriarch.
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Whale Rider is a dramatic and visually lush film (this is Lord of the Rings country, remember), and while it is somewhat hampered by languid pacing and unsubtle symbolism, the film is saved from beaching itself by moments of low-key, natural humor (When Pai haughtily tells a group of her grandmother's pals that they are "endangering their childbearing properties" by smoking, one of them mutters, "You'd have to smoke in a pretty funny place"), as well as winning performances from an all-Maori cast made up of both professionals and amateurs.
Castle-Hughes was plucked from a classroom and handed the picture's lead, an awesome responsibility that the kid more than lives up to. She has one moment, when she stands on a stage and delivers a Maori chant with a heartbreaking quaver in her voice, that leaves the viewer with little doubt that this is a young actress we'll see again. Paratene also works wonders with the tricky role of Koro, taking a character who often does unsympathetic things and letting us see the conflicts in the old man's nature, the way he almost has to force himself to be cruel to his granddaughter, as if his grudge against her is a fragile thing that he must fight to keep alive. Even if we can't really grasp why he so stubbornly insists on treating Pai as less than she is, we can see how treating her this way costs him something dear, and we hope that he can get over his prejudices for his sake as well as hers.
There would naturally be the serious potential for a film with a storyline like this to become a wearisome feminist tract, but thankfully Whale Rider never descends into just another battle of the sexes. Not only is Pai sweetly immune to the lure of power and bereft of smugness or affectation, it's clear that if she did become chief she would introduce a new, more communal style of leadership in which everyone in the tribe would be allowed to have a say. Although at this tender age she has absorbed her grandfather's prejudices and she curses herself for having been born a girl, we can see that her traditionally feminine gentleness and traditionally masculine resolve add up to make her a potentially great leader, the very person her grandfather has so longed for to lead their people from the darkness, even if he himself is too blind to see it. Without being strident about it, Whale Rider shows us that sometimes the best man for the job is a little girl.
Whale Rider was written and directed by Niki Caro; and stars Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene and Cliff Curtis. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.