Opens Fri June 13
Like all good epic tales, Whale Rider begins with birth and death. Two deaths, actually. A woman is giving birth to twins, a boy and a girl; the boy--meant to become the leader of Ngati Konohi people--is stillborn, and takes his mother with him. The girl survives, and her father names her "Paikea."
In Maori legend, Paikea was the Whale Rider, a man who rode a whale from Hawaii to New Zealand and begat the Maori people. Thusly, the girl Paikea (played beautifully by 11-year-old Keish Castle-Hughes) must live with the burden of her gender, and the burden that she survived while hereditary leader, her brother, did not.
Based on the 1986 novel by Witi Ihimaera, Whale Rider is an emotionally complex tale set in Whangara, a coastal New Zealand community populated by Ngati Konohi. It's a feminist tale, in which Paikea must prove her worth to the current leader: her grandfather Koro, whom she loves immensely but who is disappointed by her gender. It's also a tale of survival, in which the strength of Ngati Konohi culture is disintegrating with the influence of rap, cigarettes, and booze (though it doesn't come off as preachy as I just made it sound). The Ngati Konohi desperately need a leader to unite them, and so much of Whale Rider is Koro's quest to find the right boy to do it.
Like another great epic, The Fast Runner, Whale Rider gives you the distinct sense of being a phantom presence in a mostly untouched people; you don't get the idea that the filmmakers interrupted the natural goings-on of Ngati Konohi culture. This is especially important when conveying the kind of filmic realism for which Whale Rider strives and attains so elegantly. Niki Caro's direction captures the vastness of the landscape, communicating the essentiality of the ocean to Maori culture. Meanwhile, the script depicts complicated characters whose motivations and struggles are tied to their deep reverence for their own culture. In one scene, Paikea's grandfather shows her a rope, and makes the analogy that each thread is a person; they're only strong when they're bound together. It's the idea behind Whale Rider's quiet, deeply affecting essence.