Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes
Written and directed by Niki Caro from a novel by Witi Ihimaera
Released: June 2003; available on DVD
This 'coming of age' story offers several surprises that will have you engaged throughout. Throughout the summer of its release, Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper raved about this film, urging parents to take their children to see it, questioning the MPAA's PG-13 rating, and generally cheering it on.
E&R's recommendation should be followed: Whale Rider is definitely a film worth seeing. In fact, it won the Audience Award at 2003's Sundance Film Festival — not an easy crowd to please — and awards at many other 2003 film festivals.
In these days of blockbuster films that leap into hyperspace and assault our eyes and ears with multi-layer computer-generated explosions in bleeding color and supersonic surround sound, Whale Rider is a film with a story. Gasp! It also creates characters we care about, suffer with, and cheer for.
New Zealand's Maori provide many of the actors who bring to life their tribal story of initiation and leadership. In this patriarchal society, an 11-year-old girl (Pai, played magnificently — to Oscar®-nominated acclaim — by Keisha Castle-Hughes) senses her destiny is to become the tribe's new chief. Pai's grandfather Koro is bound by tradition to select a male, but Pai is determined to prove herself worthy of the post.
As the story unfolds, we feel the conflicts faced by differences in generations, traditions, family, and community. We're drawn into the heart-wrenching efforts each person makes to maintain the worldview they're familiar with but which may be outdated. And we see both the destructive and creative forces that can be aligned behind each vision.
The film is shot in Whangara, New Zealand, home of the author and the setting for the novel on which the film is based. The landscape is beyond beautiful and the underwater photography is fantastic, as is the scene with a huge pod of beached whales that the tribal community strains to return to the ocean.
When Pai offers her soliloquy to her grandfather, recognizing the sacrifice she needs to make to save the tribe, it's no surprise why the audience watching the film practically cheers!