Whale Rider (June 13/03)
Whale Rider is the first major film to deal with the Maori culture following Once Were Warriors, and though it's not nearly as powerful as that movie was, it's still an intriguing look at a world that's vastly different from anything most of us know.
Whale Rider revolves around Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a young girl struggling to find her identity in a society that places more importance on males than females. Her father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), has left her in the care of his parents while he travels the world in search of his own identity (her mother died during childbirth). While she gets along quite well with her grandmother Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton), Pai can't seem to get her grandfather, Koro (played by Rawiri Paratene), to take her seriously. After the old man starts teaching some of the local boys how to behave like a tribe leader (and excludes Pai from the sessions), she turns to her uncle to show her what she's missing.
Though Whale Rider moves at a snails pace, it generally remains interesting mostly because we're seeing a culture that's so different from our own. The film does a nice job in establishing a clear sense of what life is like in this small New Zealand village, seen from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl. It's Pai's story that propels the movie forward, and her longing to be accepted by Koro is something that's universal. It's only when the film delves a little too deeply into the myths of the Maori culture that credibility is stretched a lot further than it can go. The Maoris believe that whales hold supernatural abilities, and a sequence that comes late in the picture just doesn't gel with everything that came before it (the film eventually eschews believability in favor of staying true to the Maori legend involving the titular whale rider).
But that's a small complaint regarding a film that's otherwise quite engaging, due in no small part to some spectacular acting. Castle-Hughes, who was just 11 when the film was shot and has no prior experience in front of the camera, does a superb job of embodying Pai's inner conflict and need to please her grandfather. Likewise, the various adults in the movie are absolutely convincing, with Paratene leading the charge as the grumpy old patriarch. It's that feeling of authenticity that makes it easy enough to overlook Whale Rider's flaws.