Films presents a film directed by Niki Caro. Written by
Caro, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera. Running time:
105 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for brief language and a momentary
drug reference). Starring
Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton,
Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa, Mana Taumaunu, Rachel Houset.
Rider, based on the novel
by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, has been recieving wide public
acceptance and praise across the country, winning Audience
Choice awards at many of the film festivals it has played
at. It is not difficult to see why. This is a feel-good coming-of-age
story, one that audience members are bound to leave smiling.
Whale Rider may not be a particularly original motion
picture, but it is an uplifting and inspiring one.
Whangara tribe of New Zealand have had certain traditions
ever since since their legendary ancestor, Paikea, rode to
New Zealsand on the back of a whale over 1,000 years ago.
From then on, the first-born son has been the chieftain of
the tribe. That is, until a difficult twin birth claims the
life of both the son and his mother. The daughter, Pai, survives
the birth. The distraught father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis),
leaves for Europe to pursue an art career, leaving Pai with
her grandparents, Koro (Rawiri Paratene) and Nanny Flowers
(Vicky Haughton). Koro is disappointed that only Pai was born,
as he views her birth as the end of the bloodline. Because
of his upbringing, Koro is unable to accept that maybe Pai
is the leader the tribe needs, because she is a female.
bulk of the film takes place around ten years later, when
Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is eleven, and doing her best to
impress Koro. However, whenever she does something right,
it upsets Koro in some way, and he refuses to acknowledge
her as anything more than a disappointment. In his search
for a new chieftain, Koro builds a school in which to train
the village's young boys. Pai attempts to learn as well, but
because she's a girl, Koro refuses to teach her. By the end,
however, the whales of the island have revealed the truth.
you think I gave too much away with that last sentence, you
won't once you start watching the film. There is never a moment
in Whale Rider that you won't know at least the basic
way in which the film will end. But the point of Whale
Rider is not to defy expectations or to surprise, it is
to tell a conventional story in an unconventional way. The
coming-of- age tale, as told by Whale Rider, is a welcome
mix of convention and old-world mysticism. The climax, with
the whales, is spectacular, unbelievable even, but it works
as a sort of real-life fairy tale.
writer/director, Niki Caro, is not a Maori, but has done her
best to make the film feel authentic. She hired Maori consultants,
numerous indiginous extras, and filmed in New Zealand. The
result is a beautifully shot film that feels real. Many wide-angle
shots of the land are breathtaking, and the underwater shots,
usually of whales, feel like shots from a beautiful documentary.
Lisa Gerrard's score, a simple, unintrusive orchestral arrangement,
Castle-Hughes, who has never acted before, is a revelation.
She captures every nuance of her character, Pai's spirit,
her strength, her determination, and her love for Koro. A
speech she gives close to the end of Whale Rider is
the strongest scene of the film, a poignant testament to the
complex relationship shared between Koro and Pai. The way
in which the speech is given is entirely belivable. Rawiri
Paratene makes Koro the complex, three-dimensional character
he is. Koro is not a villain, but a man held by tradition
and his rigid upbringing.
is a strong sophomore effort from Niki Caro (her previous
film, Memory & Desire, was never released here),
and it establishes her as a real talent. It may not get her
noticed, per se, because Whale Rider is not a big-name
release, and the subject matter does not exactly lend itself
to mainstream success, and this is a shame. This film may
not be one of the absolute best of the year, but it is perfect
for anyone looking to feel good. For these cynical times in
which we live, sometimes feeling uplifted is all we need.
2003 Matt Noller