The heart of Whale Rider centers on an ancient legend of the Maori (indigenous people of New Zealand) who believe their ancestry dates back a thousand years to a warrior named Paikea. Legend has it Paikea escaped death after his canoe capsized by riding to shore on the back of a whale and since then his male heirs have each assumed the responsibilities as Maori chief. That is until now. Set in the present Whale Rider tells the story of Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) a feisty 12-year-old girl who lives in the fishing village of Whangara off the east coast of New Zealand with her stern but loving grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) who is a direct descendent of Paikea and her grandmother the kindly Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton). Although granddaughter and grandfather have a special bond there is a sadness in Koro. He mourns the loss of his grandson Pai’s twin brother who died in childbirth along with Pai’s mother. Koro also has a hard time accepting the fact his own son Pai’s father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) has not chosen to follow his destiny but instead has fled Whangara in grief. Though he loves his granddaughter dearly a thousand years of tradition is hard to buck in this unyielding man’s eyes; Koro refuses to see Pai as a rightful Maori chief and instead begins to look for an outside heir to the throne by training local village boys. But Pai isn’t your ordinary blossoming adolescent girl; she embodies many of the qualities of a great Maori warrior–courage determination wisdom and an irrepressible spirit. Against all odds including the hurtful rejection from her beloved grandfather she finds a way to prove herself as the true heir to her rich ancestry–and your own spirit will soar as she succeeds.
The mostly Maori cast brings truthfulness to their words and actions making the Maori culture come alive. Yet the film solely belongs to Castle-Hughes who is so amazingly poised and beautiful it’s hard to believe she’s only 11 years old. She simply radiates as Pai showing a depth of emotion rarely seen in a first-time actress especially one so young–she joins a short list that includes Oscar winners Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon) and Anna Paquin (The Piano). Every scathing word and scornful reproach Pai receives from Koro registers clearly on this little girl’s face and it truly almost breaks your heart to watch her. Still it’s tremendous strength that shines through in Castle-Hughes‘ performance. In one particularly heart-wrenching scene Pai gives a speech in the wharenui or the town’s sacred meeting house dedicating it to her grandfather who has not shown up. Despite the pain her grandfather has caused her Pai bravely gulps down tears and recounts her family’s history. By the end you’re in a puddle of your own tears. As the young actress’ counterpart the elderly Paratene (Rapa Nui)–one of New Zealand’s most prominent actors–also turns in a finely tuned performance as Koro. You really want to hate this man but Paratene makes you understand Koro’s grief–and how attached he is to his own deep-seated roots. Koro believes there isn’t any other way to be but when the old man finally sees how wrong he has been how Pai is the only true heir to the throne Paratene plays the moment brilliantly as you see his steely resolve dissolve into painful realization.
Having won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year Whale Rider has been steadily gaining momentum and has made already made over $2 million playing in only 163 theaters nationwide. Based on a book by Witi Ihimaera who has tribal links to the Whangara community New Zealand writer/director Niki Caro–who is not Maori–had to treat Whale Rider with kid gloves in order to preserve the great Maori traditions while at the same time craft an entertaining film. In adapting the book Caro delicately handles the legend of Paikea but centers the film on the relationship between Pai and Koro giving Whale Rider an emotional core and contemporary feel. Not since the gritty and powerful 1994 film Once Were Warriors which gave audiences their first glimpse inside a modern-day Maori family has a story about the indigenous people of New Zealand been so vividly played out. Caro also had to convince the elders in the Whangara community she was right for the job and that using their town and their sacred Maori grounds was the only way to effectively tell this story. Luckily they agreed. Caro captures the spirit of this rocky and magnificent coastline and its people showing how the rugged surroundings influenced this once-great warrior nation’s customs and rituals. In the final scene the men perform a traditional warrior dance while the women chant and the community as a whole heaves off a long Maori boat symbolizing the rebirth of another rangatiratanga–or leader. It’s a fitting end to a truly inspiring film.