Whale Rider (2002) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some language
Running Time: 105 min.

Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Rawinia Clarke, Tammy Davis
Director:  Niki Caro
Screenplay: Niki Caro

Review published February 5, 2003

Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, Whale Rider is the critically-acclaimed independent film by Niki Caro (North Country) that has pleased crowds at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals.  It's a quiet story, slow in its movement and old-fashioned in its rendering.  Yet, it's also a modern film, with a strong underlying feminist theme that patriarchal thinking should be a thing of the past.  It's a very simple film, easy to see where things are going and very basic in its main story building mode.  Still, it's hard to dislike, as it showcases a people and style of living not normally depicted in most films you've seen, and a believable performance by first-time Keisha Castle-Hughes (Revenge of the Sith) that keeps the film from falling apart during key emotional scenes.

Whale Rider is set in New Zealand, where the legend has it that the native people came there following their leader, a boy who heroically rode on the back of a whale.  From that day forward, tradition has been to give leadership to direct descendants of that leader of old, but tragedy occurs when opposite-sexed twins are born, the girl living, the boy dying, and the mother also not making it through the delivery.  The chain is broken, as tradition has it that only first-born male descendants may be the leader.  The girl, Pai, grows into an adventurous and talented person of her own, but her grandfather Koro (Paratene, Man-Thing) has no need for spirited girls to try to be leader.  Koro starts a school to teach the olden traditions, and hope he can find a boy among the village to rise to the occasion and show leadership for the people who now have none.  All signs point to Pai, but traditions are meant to be upheld.

Outside of the impressive performances by the fine cast, Whale Rider benefits from the fact that it is about a people and traditions mostly unknown to those not in the area.  The depiction of their customs and lifestyles are authentically recreated within the story, showing the power of music, poetry and ancient fighting techniques that the people of that region hold very dear. 

The feminist leanings are a bit obvious, especially when we have had many such stories of our own coming from Hollywood, but it must be remembered that there are places where such a thing as a girl leader are completely unheard of, perhaps the vast majority of the world still falls under adamant patriarchal values set forth from their very beginnings.  It is in those places that the message might actually be groundbreaking, and strides might be made to change attitudes from a system that has been going on for hundreds of years.

Whale Rider is a well-made film, a coming-of-age tale of sorts, not only for one young girl, but also for a people struggling to maintain an identity and cohesion.  It's recommended to anyone who doesn't mind a slow drama with mythical components, which is as much about the people and their beliefs as it is about the central storyline.  While there is predictability to the plot and a casualness in energy overall, there is always beauty in seeing a film where every performance is heartfelt and every theme believed in through and through.  

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo