Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton
Country: New Zealand/Germany
In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness. It was waiting. Waiting to be filled up. Waiting for someone to love it. Waiting for a leader.
Whale Rider is one of those films that only comes around once in a great while, a work which at once feels bracingly intimate while at the same time attaining the larger than life level of mythology. Taking the form of a standard coming of age narrative, Whale Rider is a story about the necessity (and pain) of progress, and the ways in which traditions can be honored precisely by making them less rigid and more inclusive. Released in 2002, it's a film that has aged very well due to its deeply engaging story, its sensitive but frank depiction of its characters, and its luminous central performance. At 13 Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest person ever nominated for the Oscar as Best Actress (Quvenzhane Wallis has since taken that distinction, earning her nomination at 9) and while the Oscars have as much (if not more) to do with the hype of the day than anything else, 13 years after the fact her performance remains a marvel, an open, heart-on-the-sleeve, almost inconceivably mature depiction of a girl straining against the boundaries of gender and cultural norms to become the person she feels she's meant to be.
Whale Rider opens with the birth of its protagonist, Pai (Castle-Hughes), who is brought into the world amid tragedy. Her mother dies in childbirth and her twin brother is stillborn, and to compound the family's grief, her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) can focus on nothing more than the fact that the male heir he was expecting to groom to take over as leader of the tribe has been lost. Devastated by the loss of his wife and one of his children and unable to cope with both being a single parent and with his father's continuous disappointment and disapproval, Pai's father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), leaves her with his parents and sets off to pursue a career as an artist. Though Pai grows up unconditionally adored by her grandmother, Nanny (Vicky Haughton), her relationship with Koro is more complicated. She adores him and, despite his initial dismay at her birth, he comes to love her and the two are virtually inseparable by the time Pai is entering adolescence. However, Koro ultimately remains guided by the same mindset that prompted him, mere moments after his daughter-in-law's death, to insist to his son could remarry and try again to have a son. Needing to prepare the next leader, Porourangi having rejected his role as heir and his younger brother Rawiri (Grant Roa) being unsuitable, Koro turns to the community and begins teaching and testing the local boys to see which of them would be suitable to take the position.
The push/pull in the film is between Koro, who has a narrow view of gender roles, and Pai, who desperately wants his approval and acceptance and attempts to gain it by proving to him that she would be a suitable leader. Her attempts, however, have the opposite effect, creating a divide between them that comes to seem like it will be impossible to bridge. The more Pai "interferes" in Koro's attempts to teach the boys, the more fractured their relationship becomes, and the more the community seems to be coming apart which Koro interprets as being a result of Pai having tainted their society by not knowing her "place." What he fails to consider is that, if everything that is happening is a message, that perhaps the message is that he is doing wrong by refusing to recognize the qualities that Pai displays that suggest that she is the leader who was meant to succeed him. It isn't until Pai literally recreates the legend of her namesake - Paikea, the Whale Rider of mythology - that he begins to understand: he has hewed close to tradition, but he has lost sight of the purpose of those traditions.
Adapting the novel of the same name by Witi Ihimaera, writer/director Niki Caro unfolds the story with enough grace to make it feel properly connected to the mystical element of the narrative, and with such a straightforward, unblinking eye towards rendering the characters that they feel uncommonly complex, particularly for a film which centers on a child and is told from her perspective. Koro is a hard man, a man whose excessive pride makes him capable of unthinking and startling cruelty, but as depicted by the film he's not a "bad" man. He's lost and doesn't realize it until it appears that it may be too late, and though at times he seems like the story's villain, he's really its most tragic figure. The relationships he has with his wife, his children, and his granddaughter are difficult because they have all moved beyond the fixed mindset that he clings to, but that conflict is explored in the film with intelligence and care, not excusing or downplaying Koro's behavior (the impact of his words and actions are clear and heartbreaking, particularly when Pai asks Nanny, "Why doesn't he want me?") but trying to understand where that behavior is rooted. The status quo is not something that is easily overcome, but the world has changed and traditions must change along with it. Whale Rider is a coming of age story, but it's not really the story of how a girl takes her first steps towards adulthood; it's about how a girl pushes a community towards its own coming of age and how that renews and strengthens the bonds that had been falling slack. 13 years later, Whale Rider remains a moving, beautifully rendered, and wonderful film and Castle-Hughes' performance and natural magnetism beg the question: how did she not become a huge star?