"Whale Rider" has been something of a sensation on the international film festival circuit, winning audience awards at such diverse and influential festivals as Sundance, Toronto, Rotterdam and San Francisco. Yet far from over-hyping the project, all those honors turn out not to do justice to this significant and surprising film.
Surprising because audience awards often go to undemanding, preternaturally cheerful ventures. Although it's a work of great warmth with an overwhelming finale, "Whale Rider" (written and directed by Niki Caro from the novel by Witi Ihimaera) is also a substantial film of unexpected emotional force. And when at a certain point it seems to slip the bonds of this world and take a leap of faith into an almost mythological dimension, it breathlessly takes us along for that memorable ride.
Even before all that happens, "Whale Rider" draws great strength from the Maori community of New Zealand where it is set. Although its classic story of a 12-year-old girl battling to be accepted by a crusty grandfather is completely involving, the film wouldn't be as compelling as it is if powerful cultural and societal issues didn't serve as underpinnings to that struggle.
"Whale Rider" opens with a wrenching scene narrated in voice-over by young Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes in a splendid debut). "When I was born," she says in a reedy voice as we watch the tragedy unfolding, "my twin brother died and took our mother with him."
That event would be catastrophic anywhere, but it is especially so for the Ngati Konohi, residents of the small New Zealand fishing village of Whangara (where the film was actually shot). Pai's stern grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) is the village chief, the latest leader in a patrimonial line that stretches back to Paikea, the tribe's progenitor, who, legend has it, arrived on the island centuries earlier riding on a whale.
Determined that the male line be unbroken, Koro has no use for a granddaughter. He tells his bereft son, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), to start over with another wife. The son refuses, instead going off to Europe, where a career as an artist beckons. He has been driven away, we come to understand, by the weight and intensity of his father's expectations, and, as she grows up, his daughter Pai has to deal with Koro's unbending worldview as well.
"Whale Rider" reintroduces Pai as a stick-thin 12-year-old, as small and stubborn as a Joan of Arc. Raised by her grandfather and her more loving but equally strong-minded grandmother Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton), Pai turns out to be as enraptured with the spirit of the Maori tradition as the older man is.
There is a clear bond between these two, but it is one that the grandfather cannot acknowledge because he is determined to find a new leader to replace his absent son and dead grandson, and tradition dictates absolutely that a girl, no matter how capable or involved, cannot fill that position.
Anchored by the persuasive performance of Paratene, "Whale Rider" makes the unbending Koro a realistic, surprisingly resonant character. Obsessed by his obligations, he is rigid about excluding Pai from leadership preparation because of his conviction that this is what his ancestors and his religion absolutely demand. When he screams, "You don't mess around with sacred things," you can feel the strength of his belief and the force of the pressures on him, but Pai is equally determined, and so the battle is joined.
Although it does so gently, "Whale Rider" is also forthright about revealing why Koro feels that his tribe is in such desperate need of a strong new leader. We see the young people of the village, unanchored to tradition, either gone like Pai's father or falling under the thrall of alcohol, drugs and dissolute behavior.
But as opposed to 1994's "Once Were Warriors," an ultra-bleak look at modern Maori culture, "Whale Rider" conveys the easygoing directness and conviviality of this life, including a penchant for bawdy humor and earthy traditions like rubbing noses as a ceremonial greeting.
A New Zealander (though, unlike the original book's author, not a Maori), writer-director Caro worked hard to gain the trust and cooperation of her all-Maori cast and the inhabitants of the village where the shooting took place. Among the other qualities Caro (whose first film was the prizewinning "Memory and Desire") brings to the mix are a willingness to let this story tell itself in its own time and the ability to create emotion that is intense without being cloying or dishonest.
She is also able, and this is critical, to leave the mundane behind and steer the film to a higher level when the story demands to go there. Echoing last year's Inuit "The Fast Runner," she can make the stuff of myth seem both natural and believable. When the words "Dedicated to those who came before" appear on screen at the close, you can almost feel all those ancestors joining modern audiences in applauding what has been accomplished here.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief language an a momentary drug reference
Times guidelines: Some fairly intense subject matter
Keisha Castle-Hughes ... Pai
Rawiri Paratene ... Koro
Vicky Haughton ... Nanny Flowers
Cliff Curtis ... Porourangi
A South Pacific Pictures, ApolloMedia and Pandora Films production, released by Newmarket Films. Director Niki Caro. Producers Tim Sanders, John Barnett, Frank Hubner. Executive producer Linda Goldstein Knowlton. Screenplay, Niki Caro, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera. Cinematographer Leon Narbey. Editor David Coulson. Music Lisa Gerrard. Production design Grant Major. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
In limited release.