Whale Rider

on June 06, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
When Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes, in a remarkable debut performance) is born, her mother and twin brother--the heir to the chiefdom of her tribal people--die in childbirth. Her father flees in grief, and her grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), never forgives her. When Pai is an adolescent, it becomes clear that her still-absent father will never be the son her grandfather needs him to be, and he gathers the first-born sons of the New Zealand coastal village to school them in the ways of their ancestors. Curious and with a natural propensity for the skills he is teaching, Pai wants to sit in on the lessons, but--a suffragette in her own right--she refuses to sit quietly in the back, and Koro kicks her out. When his mission fails, he is forced to reconsider who might be destined to take his place.

Writer/director Niki Caro's "Whale Rider" is an exquisite film that sensitively captures the noble spirit of these people--and their humor. (When Pai advises her grandmother's friends that they are endangering their childbearing properties by smoking, they quip, "You'd have to smoke in a pretty funny place.") At first the rituals in which Koro instructs the boys seem goofy--slapping their bare chests, for example, and sticking out their tongues--but, when Koro demonstrates, the gestures become truly frightening and grand. Also hauntingly beautiful are the songs, especially when sung by Pai in her thin, adolescent voice.

Pai's people believe that their ancestors came to be in this place by migrating across the sea on the backs of whales. Ultimately it is these same creatures who sacrifice themselves to open the villagers' eyes to their destiny. Their connection to these beasts is poignantly portrayed in a heart-breaking scene as they desperately try to keep them alive and push them back to sea. Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton and Cliff Curtis. Directed and written by Niki Caro. Produced by Tim Sanders, John Barnett and Frank Hubner. A Newmarket release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 105 min

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