I've already seen way too many reviews out there touting Whale Rider's potent dose of "girl power." But to just sum it up, what this movie offers as "girl power" somehow implies a Charlie's Angel- meets-Tomb Raider version of female empowerment for the Hello Kitty set and effectively robs Whale Rider of its real strengths. So let's just kick that overused term to the curb, shall we?
One of the sleeper hits of 2003, Whale Rider is a gentle and unsentimental story of tradition, family dynamics and self-determination. Maori culture is replete with stories of Paikea, the whale rider, who safely delivered his people to the shores of New Zealand. In keeping with Maori tradition, it is always the oldest son who becomes chief of the tribe, but what happens when the tribal legacy falls to a girl?
Whale Rider explores a modern-day tribal village and how one family grapples with that very question. Pai is born of a difficult labor that kills both her mother and her twin brother. Her estranged father leaves her in the care of her grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), who is the current chief and who is so disappointed at the death of his grandson that he cannot accept his living granddaughter. Eventually Koro comes to accept Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), but his love has limits, especially when Pai starts wanting to learn the ways of the warrior. This is where Whale Rider succeeds and where a lesser film might have devolved into predictability. Koro is not portrayed as the mean old man, nor is he one-dimensionally evil. Instead Paratene conveys him as a proud, aging leader who deeply believes the old ways are the only way and that to let a girl learn what is reserved for boys will truly bring misfortune to the tribe. In similar fashion, newcomer Castle-Hughes could not be more right for her role. How refreshing to see a real girl -- with all of her awkwardness, defiance and curiosity -- on the screen for once instead of the prematurely suggestive, lip-glossed pre-teens Hollywood is always trying to foist on us.
Beautifully shot and superbly told, Whale Rider is one of those films that quietly works its way into your psyche.