Whale Rider

The first chief of a particular Maori tribe, so the legend goes, arrived on the back of a whale, and all subsequent chiefs have been his descendants. “Whale Rider” tells the story of what happens when the current chief’s heir in this patriarchal society is, in fact, an heiress. In so doing, it delivers a first-rate cinematic experience, and some of the best performances of the year.

Our narrator and heroine is Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a boyish 11-year-old girl whose twin brother died at birth, along with their mother. This was soon followed by her abandonment at the hands of her young, irresponsible father (Cliff Curtis), leaving her in the care of her grandparents. Her grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), is the tribal chief, desperate for an heir, his two sons both having failed to live up to their potential. With Pai’s twin brother gone, that leaves her. But a girl is of no use in a society that allows only men to be chiefs. “My grandfather’s wish was that I’d never been born,” Pai tells us. “But he changed his mind.”

If ever a grandfather loved his granddaughter, it is Koro. He picks her up from school each day on his bicycle and turns up to support her in her school performances — where, notably, she is the lone girl forced to do traditional male dances. When he sees some boys making fun of her, he gives one of them a gentle but stern smack in the head.

But Koro’s love for Pai is tempered by his certainty that she can never be chief, and is thus no good to him. He endeavors to find an alternate, going outside the family line and training the first-born sons within the village, refusing to let Pai attend the training. Pai is hurt by her grandfather’s rejection, yet cannot stop loving him. She gains strength from her grandmother (Vicky Haughton), who has lived with the old codger all her life and has found small ways to stand up to him. (“You may be chief out there, but I am chief in this kitchen!” she hisses at him when he tries to boss Pai around at dinner. Subdued, Koro defers to her authority.)

Directed by Niki Caro and adapted by her from Witi Ihimaera’s novel, the film sweetly examines the struggle between love and one’s perceived duty. Koro and Pai love each other immensely, yet there are clear boundaries that must not be crossed, and yet the existence of those boundaries does not diminish their love. The situation is heartbreaking: It would almost be better if Koro didn’t love his granddaughter at all. His rejection of her as a potential leader would somehow make more sense that way.

Incredibly, the film makes both points of view sympathetic. For as stubbornly old-fashioned as Koro may be — and though it’s obvious he will have to change his way of thinking before the film’s end — we nonetheless feel for him and his old-school way of thinking. There is a moment late in the film when Pai narrates, “He wanted to die. There was no reason to live anymore.” The shot is of a whale that has beached itself, and that’s who Pai is ostensibly referring to — but standing next to the whale is Koro. That composition is no accident, I’m sure.

Leon Narbey’s cinematography is beautiful, almost surreal, as if a place like this couldn’t really exist in our world. Lisa Gerrard’s musical score lends a similarly ethereal effect, leading up to the film’s mystical finale.

Keisha Castle-Hughes, new to films, gives a natural, unforced performance as Pai, her large, expressive eyes telling much of her story. As her grandfather, Rawiri Paratene is equally natural, lending utter believability to a role far removed from most viewers’ lives. And Vicky Haughton deserves special recognition for bringing beauty and grace to the role of the grandmother.

I’m sure I have never seen a film like this before. It is subtle, but makes its points clearly and simply. It is storytelling at its very best.

A- (1 hr., 45 min.; PG-13, for very mild profanity and a momentary drug reference; should have been PG.)