The success of Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider” may be attributed almost entirely by the locale in which the film is set. Filmed in the coastal village of Whangara, New Zealand, Caro’s newest work expresses not only the intense beauty of the island, but the rich Maori traditions that lay embedded deeply within, as well.
Like the novel by New Zealander Witi Ihimaera that it is based on, “Whale Rider” gently portrays the evolving traditions of a provincial town as it looks forward to the future and searches for a new leader.
“Whale Rider” begins violently with a hallucinatory childbirth sequence. Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) watches in quiet desperation as his wife struggles to give birth to a set of twins, a girl and a boy, who will someday become chief of his tribe. Koro, (Rawiri Paratene) Porourangi’s father and leader of the tribe, waits anxiously; thinking only of his next heir, his dreams disintegrate when his daughter-in-law and newborn grandson die.
Koro callously implores about the future of his tribe and immediately disowns his infant granddaughter. In angry defiance, Porourangi names his daughter Pai, after the ancestral founder of the tribe, Paikea, the Whale Rider. Koro and Porourangi clash often, as Porourangi leaves the tribe behind for a new life and a new set of values in Europe. The chemistry between Paratene and Curtis is some of the film’s most electrifying.
Years pass, and although Koro still refuses to acknowledge Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), now an adolescent, as the natural inheritor of his tribe, he has grown to love his strong-willed but obedient granddaughter. Paratene plays the role of the gruff-old-man-with-the-heart-of-gold well; contrasting him is Vicky Haughton, who plays Pai’s encouraging grandmother, Flowers.
Still lacking a male heir, Koro starts a “chieftain training school” for young boys, hoping to single out one of them as his successor. Values clash as Pai, eager for the chance to prove herself to her grandfather, secretly trains for the position on her own. Pai remains determined to show everyone, including herself, that she can be the leader of her people.
The real core of the film, however, is the triumph of a girl who dares to challenge the archaic ways of an entire people; Keisha Castle-Hughes is exceptional in her heart-wrenching performance as Pai, showing remarkable emotional depth, ranging from a scared young girl to a strong and respectable leader.
While the film concludes predictably, it maintains its momentum throughout with warm humor, lush cinematography and engaging performances by its players. Yet perhaps the finest aspect of “Whale Rider” is its capacity to provide an honest perspective on an ancient culture and its struggles with changing values.
Rating: 3 1/2 stars.