"...the years best film so far"

Pai's Story is One for the Entire Family

(061303) How common are movies in which a female character struggles to overcome male chauvinism. And how rare is one that does so without preaching or finger-pointing. Whale Rider is that blessed rarity. It's a film about gender empowerment in which the struggle between the sexes isn't reduced to crude stereotypes, and the lessons learned come honestly and with a sense of genuine revelation.

The audience award winner at the most recent Toronto International Film Festival, Whale Rider is the second feature by New Zealand writer/director Niko Caro, who must be added to any list of emerging talent. In adapting Witi Ihimaera's 1986 novel about a young Maori girl who confronts her tribe's patriarchal laws, Caro has created a stirring tale by blending elements of modern reality with ancient myth. It's a story that seems all the more remarkable, considering that its main star, Keisha Castle-Hughes, was only 11 when the film was made, and she commands a considerable portion of the screen time. The Auckland-born Castle-Hughes is a natural, expressive talent. She has that indefinable quality that comes along only rarely. This is not the typical child actor. Never feeling over rehearsed, cloying or trying too hard to emote, Castle-Hughes is a revelation. During a climatic scene here young Pai is reading her essay to the townspeople, the emotions that come from Castle-Hughes are obviously coming from a very real place within. This is one of the finest debuts in quite a while.

She plays Pai, a girl born in tragedy to a proud-but-struggling Maori family in Whangara, a village on the windswept east coast of New Zealand's North Island. Pai's twin brother dies at birth, as does their mother. The father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) is heartbroken, but his grieving is interrupted by the rudeness and impatience of grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), a tribal elder. He tells his son to quickly remarry and to produce the male heir needed to continue the family's tradition of a male spiritual leader and warrior, whom legend has it arrived at the island on the back of a whale. A carved totem of the whale rider graces the roof of the family home, and provides a constant visual reference and reminder of the duties of destiny.

Koro is not one to be denied. He's convinced that only a male heir will save the family and the village from ruin. But Porourangi is a sculptor, not a saviour, and he has no interest in breeding to sustain a legend. He decamps from the village for Europe, leaving young Pai behind to be raised by grandfather Koro and grandmother Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton). Koro is a fearsome presence, a man not easily challenged, and he considers women useless for anything other than conception or homecare. But he's not a bad man, just one who is trapped in the ways of an ancient culture that he fears is fast vanishing, and which he feels compelled to defend. He is charmed by little Pai, and accepts her as his grandchild, even as he fiercely maintains that she can never assume the mantle of the family's spiritual whale rider.

Finally convinced that Porourangi will never give him the male heir he desperately wants, Koro opts for the next best thing: training one of the village boys to assume the task. He begins instructing a desultory group of village youths, but his best student is one whom he refuses to acknowledge. Pai is secretly watching from the wings, learning the warrior stances and traditional prayers and songs that Koro teaches. She is determined to prove that a girl can be a whale rider, even if it means defying her grandfather.

She sticks to her resolve even when her wayward father returns from a sojourn to Germany, his pregnant girlfriend in tow, and offers to take her away with him. Life won't be easy for Pai if she remains in the village, especially when Koro discovers her secret lessons, but she is determined not to take the easy way out.

Whale Rider tilts toward pure myth in its final act, but it is presented with such skill, beauty and truth, there is no reason to doubt the images on the screen.

The village is struck by an ecological disaster, as a group of migrating whales runs aground on a sand bar, flailing desperately to get back into open water. This is the worst kind of luck for a community that worships whales, and Koro reads the situation as evidence of spiritual unrest over the lack of a proper male leader. The time comes for Pai to confront her destiny, even if it is destiny that has been denied to her.

It is a testament to the vision of Caro that Whale Rider is never allowed to become didactic or too clever for its own good. Her skill behind the camera, combined with a uniformly great cast, stunning cinematography and fully realized special effects (the whales, incredibly, are all digital) make this a coming-of-age story that all ages and both genders can call their own. It is the years best film so far.

Written & Directed by:    Niki Caro. Based on the novel "The Whale Rider"
 by Witi Ihimaera
Starring:     Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratine, Vicky
Released:    06/06/03 (USA-wide)
Length:    105 minutes
Rating:    Rated PG-13 for brief language and a momentary
 drug reference.

WHALE RIDER 2003 Newmarket Films
All Rights Reserved.

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