Whale Rider

Stars:   Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Rawinia Clarke, Tammy Davis, Grant Roa, Tahei Simpson
Director: Niki Caro
Screenwriter: Niki Caro; based on the 1987 novel by Witi Ihimaera

This is a beautiful and powerful story from New Zealand that neatly meshes contemporary themes with myth and Maori tribal traditions. It is both a tale of female empowerment and one that acknowledges the significance of cultural heritage preservation. And having won awards at Sundance, Toronto, Rotterdam and San Francisco film festivals, I can truly say they were well deserved.

Whale Rider is set among the Ngati Konohi tribe of Maori who live along New Zealand’s east coast. According to a 1,000 year old legend, their founding father rode a whale in from the sea to what became their homeland. And, according to tradition, the tribe’s leadership is passed from the male chief to his eldest son and each son’s eldest son, down the line. As the film opens, we learn of a crisis in succession when the next male heir-apparent dies at birth and only his twin sister Pai survives. After their father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) leaves the tribe, Pai is left with her grandparents, Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton) and the present tribal chieftain Koro (Rawiri Paratene) who is reminded daily by her presence that the tribe has no successor.

By the time Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is 11 years old, and having been well tutored in Maori traditions by the tales from her grandfather, she believes that she is destined to be the new chief. Koro, however, feels bound by tradition to pick a male leader so he sets about choosing and training the male first borns amongst the tribe, all modern lads whose interests or abilities lie elsewhere. His actions leave Pai abandoned and tremendously frustrated but her beliefs in her destiny are so strong that she sets out to prove herself worthy of the job.

Lotta says:
There is more dramatic tension and conflict in Whale Rider than in your average superhero movie. Keisha Castle-Hughes is excellent, bringing much strength and empathy to her role. Rawiri Paratene as grandfather Koro delivers a dignified performance, well supported by Vicky Haughton as his formidable wife. This is a beautiful story in a lovely and often magical setting. It’s rated PG-13 – for brief language and a momentary drug reference.

Studio: Newmarket Films
Production Company: Pandora Film Produktion, Apollo Media, South Pacific Pictures, A the Works Ltd.

Reviewed: July 6, 2003