Hollywood’s latest trend may be the female superhero defending the world with her supernatural body and larger-than-life names like Electra, Rogue, Jinx, Storm or Mystique. But at least one movie this summer presents a more down-to-earth heroine: a 14-year-old Maori girl bent on proving to her stubborn grandfather that girls, too, can be leaders.
“Whale Rider,” a low-budget independent New Zealand film that opens June 6, stars 14-year-old newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes as the determined Pai, a girl born into tragedy who is able to overcome the odds against her.
Pai’s grandfather, who happens to be the Maori tribal chief, rigidly believes that only males can become the leaders, warriors and purveyors of tradition. With a little perseverance, humor and smarts, Pai manages to convince her grandfather that for the tribe to survive, his ancient beliefs must evolve.
But “Whale Rider,” which won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival last year, will need some supernatural mojo to survive in this summer’s competitive market.
The film’s U.S. distributor, Newmarket Films, is taking a big risk by releasing it in the height of blockbuster summer. Still, Bob Berney, president of the company and a veteran distributor who shepherded “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” to success, is willing to bet “Whale Rider” will appeal to moviegoers’ desire for substantive, family-oriented material.
“I think there is a pretty big audience for something more positive or deep or spiritual,” said Berney, whose company also released “Real Women Have Curves” for HBO. “The story of the indigenous people deals with going back to your roots, and I think people feel in the mood for that right now.”
“Whale Rider” may have nothing in common with effects-laden studio productions this summer. But it has much in common with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Real Women Have Curves” and “Bend It Like Beckham” -- all of which feature female characters bucking tradition and blending their family’s traditional cultural values with contemporary freedom.
“The most important thing about this movie is that it shows girls can do anything,” said Castle-Hughes, a non-actor who was plucked from her eighth-grade classroom to try out for the role. “Every girl is brought up to think they are not good enough to do this or that, but I realized that girls can do anything.”
Castle-Hughes rehearsed intensely for months before filming. Not innately a tomboy, she even had to learn how to run properly like her character.
“I’m a girlie-girl,” she said, admitting that unlike the barefooted Pai, she always wears shoes. “I was told I ran like a butterfly and Pai was very, very grounded.”
The movie is based on the book “The Whale Rider” by Maori novelist and poet Witi Ihimaera. The Maori people believe their ancestors were brought to New Zealand, which they called the land of the long white cloud, on the back of a whale.
Respect for nature and their elders is paramount to the culture, which was decimated by English colonizers. Today, Maoris constitute 15% of the population but are plagued by such problems as substance abuse, racism and poverty.
It is the second Maori-themed film to be released internationally. The first, Lee Tamahori’s critically acclaimed “Once Were Warriors,” explored the brutal side of misguided urban Maoris. But some saw that film as one-dimensional.
“It didn’t exactly portray a lovely image of us,” said Castle-Hughes. “ ‘Whale Rider’ shows a whole new meaning and what we are about.”
Director Niki Caro, a white New Zealander born and raised in Auckland, said she was initially nervous about telling a Maori story.
She had to work hard to gain the Ngati Kanohi tribe’s trust. She faced some resistance from the more political Maori, who did not think it was appropriate for a white New Zealander -- known as Pakeha -- to tell their story. But the tribe eventually accepted her and embraced her as a tangata whenua -- a Maori. Before releasing the film, she showed the final cut to the tribe’s elders to make sure they approved.
Caro said she wanted to show the more gentle side of Maori culture by “penetrating the heart” of the little girl.
“I was really fascinated by the potential of a girl of that age that does not go through a sexual awakening but a spiritual awakening,” said the 36-year-old director, who is expecting a child in June. “It’s a film that concentrates on leadership and what makes a great leader.”
From the day she is born, Pai is regarded with contempt by her grandfather, Koro, played by New Zealand actor Rawiri Paratene. “I will have nothing to do with her,” Koro declares. “She has broken the male line of descent.”
Blessed with an equally strong-willed grandmother, Pai is never defeated.
“Thinks he knows all about being a chief,” Nanny Flowers (Vicki Haughton) grumbles as she is kneading dough in her kitchen one day. “He isn’t any chief. I’m his chief.”
Pai secretly memorizes Maori fight songs, dons warrior paint and learns taiaha -- a Maori form of self defense -- beating a boy who was learning the art from her grandfather. Most important, she recovers a symbol of the tribe -- a lost whale tooth that her grandfather tossed out to sea in a challenge to the young boys he is grooming for leadership.
Though the movie’s language and customs are unique to Maori culture, Coro says its theme of generational conflict and girl power is universal.
“I believe that universality comes out of total cultural specificity, never ever diluting that culture for an international audience,” she said. “Being so culturally specific, it is completely universal because you are responding to truth about people.”