*Whale Rider (PG-13)
The only viewers who might be disappointed by this New Zealand film are youngsters expecting a Flipper remake where the young heroine zips through the open seas atop a smiling giant mammal. Whale Rider, directed by Niki Caro and based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, is a multi-generational female empowerment story rooted deeply in the mythology of the Maori people. And it is a riveting human drama from beginning to end.
Our heroine is Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Pai for short, a spirited preteen descended from Maori chiefs. She shares a name with the ancient ancestor who, according to legend, arrived on the shores of New Zealand from the distant island of Hawaiki, riding a whale. A woodcarving of Paikea the ancestor straddling a whale adorns the local meetinghouse where Pai's grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) frequently oversees gatherings as the tribe's significant elder.
Pai, whose mother died at birth along with her twin brother, longs to learn the responsibilities of a chief, but is forbidden because she's a girl. That is the fundamental story thread: girl wants to please grandfather; grandfather can't get over his disappointment at not having a suitable male heir to take over the role of tribal chief.
This material could descend into an "I am woman" diatribe with the girl in question kick-boxing and using her feminine wiles to get to the top. Thankfully, it does not. Anchored solidly in contemporary Maori culture, it relies on humor and human foibles to move the story along. Scenes of Pai's grandmother Nanny (Vicky Haughton) and her chain-smoking, cynical friends let us know there won't be any Cinderella moments in this tough setting.
The natural setting is as breathtaking as the Maori houses are rundown and ramshackle. Aqua waves roll across pristine sand beaches, just beyond a back yard crowded with automobile carcasses.
Koro starts a school for local adolescent boys, hoping to find a successor, while Pai practices her martial arts and chanting on her own or with her chubby, pot-smoking uncle. She's a natural, but her grandfather cannot see beyond his narrow range of vision. In a heart-stopping scene, Pai, in front of a school assembly, reads an award-winning composition she wrote and dedicated to her grandfather. His chair on the front row sits empty and she is unable to hold back tears. We expect a Hollywood ending to the scene but don't get one -- grandfather doesn't burst through the door at the last minute. His granddaughter is left to suffer her sorrow and humiliation publicly.
Hughes, a newcomer freshly discovered for this film, is a revelation in that scene and in many others. Paratene is superb too, in a difficult role that could be overplayed but is laced with just enough uncertainty and anguish to be troubling.
Is Whale Rider suitable for kids? Absolutely. The adult content tends toward the mundane, but is elevated at moments, like when Nanny makes Pai leave the house while Koro mourns, howls at the gods, and falls into a deep depression. And the film's climax provides enough magic to enthrall the most innocent, as well as the most jaded, moviegoer.
What happens in the third act is a complete and wondrous surprise. The conclusion ties up loose ends but not predictably. In the end, Whale Rider is a crowd pleaser for all the right reasons: it informs its viewers about dignity and pain but never condescends. Grateful patrons should thank Kimball's Twin Peak for bringing this Sundance winner to town.
-- Kathryn Eastburn