–2003, Niki Caro
Whale Rider is the story of a young Maori girl who becomes the first woman chief in her tribe’s history. That’s the line that I read before I went to see this movie, and I have to say, it’s a lot more than that.
Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is raised by her grandparents in New Zealand. Her mother died giving birth to her and a twin brother, who also died. The brother was supposed to be the hope for their tribe, a new chief, but upon his death the name Paikea, the name of the first chief of their tribe, and the “whale rider” of the title, is given to the daughter instead. Then her father promptly defects to Europe, and the girl is raised by her very traditional grandfather, who is disappointed that she’s not a boy.
So far, the story isn’t anything unusual. What makes this film so good is that it’s not just the story of a girl, though the girl gives the best acting performance by a child that I’ve seen since Anna Paquin in The Piano. It is the story of a people, a people in need of a leader. Pai proves that they don’t just need a traditional leader, the male chief her grandfather wishes she was, but a new kind of leader to inspire them. It is the story of a family, a girl who never knew her mother and barely knows her father, and clings to the grandfather who rejects her time and time again.
This movie was written and directed by Niki Caro, who is a white New Zealander, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera. Caro has only made one other film, but you’d never know it from watching this one. It is beautifully crafted, with comic touches, and touching moments that never cross the line to sentimental. Like Bend It Like Beckham, it’s the story of a girl whose family would stop her from pursuing her dream, but unlike that movie, it has a deeply spiritual side as well. You should see this movie if you like seeing women triumph over old ways of thinking, if you’re interested in the Maori culture, or if you just want to see a good, simple movie to break up the monotony of summer blockbusters.