Whale Rider. Newmarket 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.

Whale Rider

Whale 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.

The 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.

The 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.

If 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.

The 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, is stirring.

Keisha 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.

Whale Rider 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