Directed by Niki Caro. Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa, Mana Taumaunu, Rachel House. (2003, PG-13, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 27, 2003
Based on a cornerstone myth of New Zealand's native Maoris (and Witi Ihimaera's novel of the same name) that relates how the tribe's ancestors were carried to their South Pacific isle from Hawaii on the back of a whale, this quietly powerful tale of youthful female empowerment is a pitch-perfect example of how to craft a personally resonant film that speaks to all cultures at all times. And it's visually arresting, too, as photographed by cinematographer Leon Narbey, who doesn't spare New Zealand's lush, volcanic landscapes and sweeping, azure vistas. This is, of course, the same exhilarating landscape of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth, but with the stubbornly prideful, patriarchal society of the Maori in place of the Ents and hobbits. That said, the world of Whale Rider is at least as gripping and evocative as Tolkien's imaginary milieu – you don't need armies of darkness roiling across the New Zealand landscape to create drama, nor is it necessary to have your protagonist battered by battlefield truncheons to engage viewers' sympathies. Whale Rider, more firmly rooted in the real world (but not too firmly rooted) achieves a certain graceful magic that soars just as high as any fantasy film. It's advisable, too, to bring a hankie for the third act's emotionally charged finale, lest you exit with a soggy shirt. The elfin Keisha Castle-Hughes plays Pai, an 11-year-old female Maori member of the Whangara tribe, who make their home on the New Zealand coastline. With a mother who died giving birth to Pai's male twin and a father who has left, grief-stricken, for extended travels abroad, Pai has been raised by her grandmother Nanny Flowers (Haughton) and grandfather Koro (Paratene), the latter of whom is the tribe's chieftain and who suffers from the fact that without a male heir, his royal bloodline will be shattered. He clearly loves his granddaughter, but when it comes time to train a new crop of teenage boys in hopes that one of them will show enough fledgling promise to take up the reigns of leadership, Pai is adamantly excluded from the proceedings. This despite the fact that she abounds with the hallmarks of a warrior and a leader. As Pai follows her grandfather's teachings in semisecrecy, she encounters resistance not only from him but from the whole patriarchal history of her people – it's the sort of uphill empowerment tale that makes for the best Disney coming-of-age dramas, but set within a more realistic (albeit exotic) environment. On the festival circuit, Whale Rider has proven itself to be a real audience favorite. Caro has loaded her film with powerful images, from the Maori's traditional warrior stances to Pai's desperate need to please her beloved grandfather while simultaneously growing into a leadership role of her own. If all this sounds a tad melodramatic to you, it's not – Castle-Hughes and Paratene are nothing short of remarkable in their roles. They bring this tradition-bound tale of against-all-odds adolescence to ripping good life.