Whale Rider takes a premise that could have been a politically correct exercise in female empowerment and instead crafts something truly magical out of a myth-like tale of a culture in transition and a clash between two strong-willed individuals, both of whom love their people’s traditions in very different ways.
Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is the first born daughter of a descendent of the man who, according to Māori legend, rode the back of a whale from their mythical homeland of Hawaiki. Her twin brother, who would have inherited the mantle of chief as first born son, dies in childbirth, as does their mother.
Her grief-stricken father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), leaves for Europe, entrusting Pai’s upbringing to his parents, Koro (Rawiri Paratene) and Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton). Koro is the current chief of the tribe and firm believer in the traditional Māori ways. His oldest son’s rejection of his traditional role, plus his inability to produce a male heir, has left Koro without an heir. Among all of Koro’s family, Pai has the deepest interest of the traditions that her grandfather treasures. She knows who her brother was supposed to be and wonders why she can’t step into that role, but Koro cannot conceive of the idea of a female chief. Rejecting her overtures, he goes looking for a successor among the other firstborn sons of the tribe.
Writer/director Niki Caro respects Witi Ihimaera‘s novel and the character’s Māori background by populating the film with a cast of vivid individuals and relationships that ring with depth and authenticity. Kora and Pai have a deeply loving relationship but their different views of the future drive a wedge between them. Nanny Flowers encourages Pai and takes Kora to task for his treatment of her. As second son, Pai’s layabout Uncle Rawiri (Grant Roa) was also denied the chance to be chief, but by the end of the film, shows a degree of strength and leadership that suggests he was better suited to the role of chief than his older brother.
Just 11 when the film was made, Keisha Castle-Hughes is a revelation, a poised actor able to emote better with just her eyes than a lot of actors can with their whole faces. Her performance was especially gutsy given the fact she couldn’t even swim when she was first cast. Hopefully, this is just the first entry in what will prove to be a long filmography.
Whale Rider avoids almost the obvious cliches to tell an almost universal story of a tradition culture clashing with the modern world. This film did not have to be made about Māori people, but the Māori settings gives it a specificity that convinces you these people are as real as your next door neighbors.
I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the ending for you, other than to say that the climatic scene is one of such singular beauty that transcends storytelling and moves into a sort of visual poetry. This film is a unique treasure.