Whale Rider opens with the act of birth and the specter of death. Fraternal Maori twins, a boy and a girl, are born carrying the weight of a tribal myth on their tiny shoulders. The boy dies, taking their mother with him and leaving the girl, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), to grow up in his shadow. According to Maori legend, the man-child was supposed to lead his people back to the spiritual and cultural greatness that had been eroded over the last thousand years. He was to be the reincarnation of Paikea, the tribes hallowed ancestor who traveled from Hawaii to Aotearoa, the site of their New Zealand village, on the back of a whale after his canoe capsized. Only firstborn males, with their powers of communion with nature, extraordinary physical prowess and spiritual grace, are said to carry the lineage. Pais embittered grandfather, Koro, never lets her forget that she (named for the ancestor over her grandfathers furious protests) is an interloper.
Whale Rider is adapted from the best-selling 1986 novel by Witi Ihimaera, the first Maori novelist to be published in New Zealand. In the book, written after his two young daughters complained that all the movies he was taking them to see featured boys as heroes and girls as damsels in distress, Ihimaera both honors and cleverly subverts the pointedly patriarchal legend of Paikea that inspired him. Pais desperate need to win her grandfathers love manifests itself in her slavish devotion to tradition and ritual.
She wants to please him by becoming what her brother never had the chance to be. And while the old mans gruff exterior cant completely hide the reluctant love he feels for her, hes unyielding in his adherence to masculine tradition.
For her part, Pai is a spunky, resourceful girl who has inherited her grandfathers stubbornness as well as his preternatural craving for connection with the ancestors. From the moment shes handed to Koro as a wriggling, crying newborn, she cottons to him, and makes him despite himself love her madly, even as he blames her for ruining his dream of a spiritual rebirth. Castle-Hughes is astonishing in the demanding lead role. A fledgling beauty with gorgeous eyes who was only 11 when the film was shot, she has a keen intuitive feel for her characters wounds, and her drive. We root hard for Pai as she tries one thing after another to gain her grandfathers approval. The weight of her joy when he bestows a grudging smile on her is almost as heartbreaking as her sorrow at disappointing him time after time. In one dinner scene, shes so crushed by his admonishments that she can barely lift her head from her plate. Later, scolded for practicing a warrior ritual, she responds with a touch of childish insolence that doesnt quite speak rebellion, but offers a glimpse of her own inner reserves of strength.
Writer-director Niki Caro, who adapted the screenplay from the novel, has crafted a script replete with both crowd-pleasing touches and subtle but powerful insights into all the characters. Pais grandparents, Koro and Nanny Flowers, are played by veteran New Zealand actors Rawiri Paratene and Vicky Haughton, and their layered exchanges are carefully modulated, filled with a history of disillusion and resentment, as well as compassion and understanding. Pais uncle, once a star athlete, has gone soft and fat, his body swollen to encompass his fathers bottomless disappointment in him. He and his girlfriend and their ragtag friends sit around all day, drinking and drugging, representatives of indigenous peoples around the globe whove been shorn of native traditions and shunted off to ghettos where chemical escapism replaces culture and opportunity. Caro imbues her characters with huge reserves of humor and an absence of self-pity that underscores the bleakness of their reality even as their weathered humanity and resilience are celebrated.
Cinematographer Leon Narbey shoots the film with a poets eye. We see fantastic underwater shots of majestic whales; silhouettes of young children playing at dusk on rocks that line the beach; wide shots of the color-drenched New Zealand landscape. But its the emotional echo chamber that Caro creates within the film that really resonates. Pais attempts to win her grandfathers love and to quash her pain at his rejection are mirrored throughout the story: A streetwise classmate weeps when his jailbird father beats a hasty retreat; Pais own father, Porourangi (Training Days Cliff Curtis, excellent as usual), flees New Zealand to escape Koros demands and coldness even as he craves the old mans validation. Crucially, the source of so much of this pain is Koros own blinding desire to connect with the ancient spirit of Paikea, the father of them all, and when he feels he has failed, his mournful wail doesnt just tear at Pai it tears at the audience as well. Its a compassionate, humanizing note that Caro allows the old man, who has unexpected rewards awaiting him on the other side of his despair.
The longing for father-love that fuels Whale Rider connects it to other recent teen films the Dardenne brothers The Son; Pete Solletts Raising Victor Vargas; Lukas Moodyssons Lilya 4-Ever. Whale Rider offers the catharsis that is often so elusive in real life. When children look into their parents eyes, they hope to see themselves reflected back, wrapped in love and security. If they dont, all manner of damage is done. So much of the rage that permeates not only American culture from the syncopated anger of hip-hop to the thin-lipped fury of Fox News anchors, to our fearless leader in the White House but the world at large, can be traced to daddy issues, the desire to find him, to curse, emulate or avenge him, to win his approval. When I saw the film earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the audience laughed in all the right places, but more importantly, they didnt laugh in the wrong places. Todays film audiences seem increasingly to use laughter, whether nervous or superior, to distance themselves from their own more complicated or emotional responses to film. Whale Rider plows right through that hipster/detached pose. In a crowd filled with punks of all ages, senior citizens, studied bohemians and assorted other citizenry, shared sniffles filled the auditorium from a group of people responding not just as spectators or pop-culture consumers, but as community.
WHALE RIDER | Written and directed by NIKI CARO, based on the novel by WITI IHIMAERA | Produced by TIM SANDERS, JOHN BARNETT and FRANK HUBNER | Released by Newmarket Films | At selected theaters
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes