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Whale Rider (PG-13)
Newmarket Films
Official Site
Director: Niki Caro
Producers: Tim Sanders, John Barnett, Frank Hubner
Written by: Niki Caro; from the novel The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera
Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa

Rating: out of 5

Prior to its release, Whale Rider has already won big on the festival circuit. The Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, and, most importantly, Sundance film festivals (among others) have honored the film with major awards. The movie thus qualifies as “much anticipated”; its poster has been hanging at my local art house for several months.

The hype, such as it is, is largely justified. Whale Rider focuses on the Maori people of New Zealand, who, outside of 1995’s Once Were Warriors, have rarely been the focus of a major studio release. (Some of them did, however, carry things around in the backdrop of The Piano.) As such, the film cannot help but be informative in an ethnographic sort of way, but it is more than that. Its simple story is well told and manages to embody themes both grand (the preservation of ancient traditions in an age seduced by the wonders of modernism and technology) and personal (the challenges in growing up and finding one’s place in a social order that can be very hostile).

The plot centers on Paikea (Castle-Hughes), a twelvish Maori girl. The youngest in a long hereditary line of chiefs, Paikea will never ascend to that position because it is traditionally reserved for males. The current chief is Paikea’s grandfather, Koro (Patene). Koro is a staunch traditionalist who sees himself as the sole caretaker of the Maori way of life. His stern traditionalism has estranged him from his son Porourangi (Curtis), Paikea’s father. Paikea’s mother and twin brother died in childbirth, leaving Koro very concerned that his son quickly find a new wife. Distraught over these events and his father’s impersonal reaction to them, Porourangi has since put the village long behind him, pursuing a career as an artist far from his natural home.

Thus Paikea was raised by her grandparents. As a surrogate parent, Koro alternates emotionally between a gruff love and an austere authoritarianism, and Paikea uses their shared love of Maori myths to become close to him. When Koro begins to train the 12-year-old boys in the village to see who has “the right stuff” to someday become chief, Paikea secretly learns many of the same skills. While Paikea is as reverent toward Maori custom as anyone in the village, her grandfather sees her enthusiasm as a sign of the traditions’ collapse. He dates the beginning of the village’s troubles to Paikea’s birth, and believes that her insolence is bringing down the wrath of the Maori divinities.

The tension between these two characters builds up to a climactic magical realist deus ex machina. While the film’s ending might not suit all tastes, Whale Rider nonetheless does a great job of putting realistic, understandable human faces on abstract ideas. It suffers, however, from the tension of its very premise. The viewer is to feel sorrow for the decline of Maori values and culture, but it is these very traditions, in the form of Koro’s unwillingness to recognize his granddaughter’s obvious qualifications to be chief, that stand in our heroine’s way. Whale Rider takes no stand on whether modern feminism is a “contamination” of Maori culture or an “improvement” upon it. In refusing to meditate on the implications of its own conflict, Whale Rider fails to be a great movie. But in telling a compelling story about believable and attractive characters, it certainly is a very good one.

—Mike O’Connor


hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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