“Whale Rider” is an extraordinary and moving film.
Set in New Zealand with an all Maori cast, “Whale Rider” dramatizes the conflict inherent when traditional culture meets modern expectations. The story centers on 11-year old Paikea, or Pai, played by the amazing Keisha Castle-Hughes. Pai’s grandfather Koro is the village chief, the latest in a patrimonial line descending from the first Paikea who, according to legend, rode a whale to the island centuries ago. Pai knows and honors tribal traditions better than any of the boys in her community. Even so, and despite being the next in line, she is unable to convince her grandfather that a girl might be chief.
What the film does remarkably well is pay respect to cultural traditions even as it questions their underlying biases and contradictions; that is, their limitations as well as their values. It does this with humor, insight and love, and on several levels.
As Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times:
“Whale Rider” has been something of a sensation on the international film festival circuit, winning audience awards at such diverse and influential festivals as Sundance, Toronto, Rotterdam and San Francisco. Yet far from over-hyping the project, all those honors turn out not to do justice to this significant and surprising film.
Surprising because audience awards often go to undemanding, preternaturally cheerful ventures. Although it’s a work of great warmth with an overwhelming finale, “Whale Rider”… is also a substantial film of unexpected emotional force. And when at a certain point it seems to slip the bonds of this world and take a leap of faith into an almost mythological dimension, it breathlessly takes us along for that memorable ride.