‘Whale Rider’ among year’s best

Hawkins Teague

Unfortunately for serious movie fans who live in small towns, some of the best movies this summer were independent films in limited release.

One of these hidden gems was “Whale Rider.”

“Whale Rider” (HHHH out of four) is the story of a young Maori girl name Pai who lives in a small village in New Zealand. She is named after Paikea, the legendary Maori ancestor who led their people to New Zealand on the back of a whale.

Pai lives with her grandfather, Koro, the chief of the tribe, who is haunted by the death of Pai’s mother and twin brother. Koro desperately wanted a grandson to inherit his position as chief, because his son wanted nothing to do with it and fled to Germany after Pai’s birth to sell his art.

Koro begins training young boys in the village, teaching them about the “old ways” in hopes of finding a new chief to lead the tribe. Pai almost goes with her father to Germany, but she decides at the last minute that her people need her.

This does not sit well with Koro, because Maori tradition dictates that women cannot be leaders. Though Koro angrily discourages her, Pai is persistent. Soon she can complete tasks that none of the boys are able to do.

The semi-supernatural climax near the end of the film calls for Pai to show whether or not she has what it takes to be a leader. Like the rest of the movie, this sequence is mystical without being over the top.

Part of the brilliance of the movie is that it works on several different levels. In one sense, it is a film about culture and tradition. In another sense, it is a classic story of female empowerment.

But it is even more effective as a simple family drama. On this level, “Whale Rider” is about wanting to be appreciated by a family member and gaining that acceptance by any means possible.

Newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes gives the most soulful performance by a child – or any actor, for that matter – in recent memory. When we look into her big brown eyes we feel her pain and her yearning for her grandfather’s love.

The scene in which she unsuccessfully attempts to hold back tears as she gives a speech dedicated to her absent grandfather at a school concert is utterly heartbreaking.

Koro could have simply been an unsympathetic man with no apparent love in his heart, but Rawiri Paratene builds a complex character who cares deeply about his family and heritage, but may be misguided in his view of gender roles.

Under Niki Caro’s direction, the movie is filled with superb acting, awe-inducing New Zealand scenery and tribal music that adds to the film’s mystical undercurrent. It is incredibly moving and is sure to be one of the best films of the year.

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