In Whale Rider, a determined 12-year-old girl defies Maori leadership traditions and risks alienating her beloved grandfather in order to fulfill her destiny. It's not often a young actress takes over the screen as forcefully as Keisha Castle-Hughes does in this compelling New Zealand drama. She plays Pai, the wannabe Whangara tribal chief, with surprising confidence and intensity. I'm keeping my eye on her -- along with Everlyn Sampi from Rabbit-Proof Fence and Valentina de Angelis from Off the Map. All three youngsters remind me of Jodie Foster during her childhood acting days -- they project that same type of natural charisma while appearing completely immersed in the characters they portray.
Happily, Whale Rider features much more than a superb performance by its young star. It also transports viewers to the beautiful East Coast of New Zealand, cinematically revealing cultural activities most of us would never have the chance to see otherwise. Consider the rigorous warrior exercises taught to village boys by Pai's grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) in which the eager lads learn to slap their chests with gusto and look grandly ferocious while Pai watches from the sidelines. Or the sight of a group of whales beached and then tended to by all the villagers, who feel a strong connection to these magnificent creatures of the sea. Legend has it that all tribe members have a common ancestor -- one carried to safety on the back of a whale after his canoe capsized.
And that particular legend drives Whale Rider's simple story. Tradition dictates that every tribal chief must pass on the leadership mantle to his oldest son. But chief Koro's oldest son (Cliff Curtis, darkly brooding in this difficult role) left the village soon after his wife died giving birth to twins -- a stillborn boy and a very lively girl. To make Koro even more miserable, his son named the baby girl after Paikea, the original whale rider. Even though Koro learns to love his feisty granddaughter, he can't help blaming her for the tragedy surrounding her birth. He turns a blind eye to the child's remarkable abilities and becomes livid when faced with her ambition to become the next chief. Sadly, Paratene projects such a mean-spirited chauvinistic attitude as the stubborn grandfather, it's difficult to accept Pai's strong attachment to him.
Not to worry, for Pai receives unconditional emotional support from her loving, gentle grandmother (Vicky Haughton), and her hefty uncle (Grant Roa) provides the precocious youngster with unique one-on-one warrior tutoring. Both represent excellent casting decisions. Haughton endows her character with impressive sensitivity; Roa makes an amusing Yoda substitute in some very funny scenes.
Based on the novella by Witi Ihimaera and directed by Niki Caro, Whale Rider treats family and cultural conflicts with in-depth understanding and down-to-earth humor. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark loved the movie so much she declared, "I can't praise the film enough. Home audiences have been laughing, crying and literally cheering in their seats every time it's shown."
Audiences outside New Zealand have also embraced this unusual film. It won the People's Choice Award at Toronto last year as well as the Cinema Audience Award at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. Although Whale Rider is not your typical Hollywood mainstream movie, I think that's part of its charm. Don't miss it.
(Read Betty Jo's interview with Cliff Curtis.)
Released by Newmarket Film Group and rated "PG-13" for brief language and a momentary drug reference.