Whale Rider

Directed and written by Niki Caro
Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rawiri Paratene
Classification: PG
Rating: ***

Whale Rider kept popping up on the festival circuit and walking off with the Miss Congeniality award -- definitely a fan favourite. Popularity is a fine thing, of course, but it usually involves a degree of careful conformity -- in this case, to the Billy Elliot model, the sort of picture where a plucky young protagonist bucks convention to prevail over long odds and provide us with our measured cup of sentimental uplift. This audience-friendly movie does all that and a little more. Or maybe less -- it's wise enough to retain a bit of darkness around the edges, to keep some sour in the sweet.

The setting is New Zealand, within a community of Maoris, where the story dusts off an ancient aboriginal legend, updating it to time present. Actually, the legend is more sacred than secular, the kind of creation/resurrection myth familiar to every culture. In this version, the Father arrives on the humpback of a whale to give life to the tribe; subsequently, whenever the land grows dry and infertile, one of his chosen sons must arise to redeem the parched kingdom. The conceit here is that the myth gets not only a contemporary spin but also a gender twist: What if the anointed were a girl; what if the Second Coming came in a skirt?

Certainly, it doesn't make for a happy elder. The film opens with Koro the tribal chief (Rawiri Paratene) witnessing the birth of his twin grandchildren. Alas, the male baby promptly dies, as does his mother. The grief-stricken dad, Koro's son, abandons his homeland for the distant shores of Europe and the exotic life of an artist. The surviving child -- yes, a female -- stays behind to be raised by Koro and his kindly wife.

Flash-forward 12 years, when Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) has grown into a spunky kid loved by her grandpa more than he cares to show. Koro knows that his tribe, like so many aboriginal communities, is in dire need of redemption -- poverty and aimlessness abound. He knows too that Pai is showing all the signs of an anointed one -- her intuitive grasp of tradition, her quiet leadership skills, her graceful flair for the martial arts and, above all, her visionary's affinity with the migrating whales. But the myth is strictly patriarchal, no women allowed, and Pai's emergence must be sternly repressed -- to do otherwise, to follow his heart and not his head, would be "to mess with sacred things."

That's the central tension of the piece, which director Niki Caro fosters almost exclusively through the performances of her two principals. It's a smart move. Despite their age difference -- one so venerable, the other so callow -- they both exude an intrinsic majesty that the camera adores. Paratene also gives the picture those dark edges I mentioned, simply by refusing to soften the character for a nanosecond. His Koro is a tough nut, capable of deep emotion but not of the slightest compromise, convinced as he is that any indulgence of Pai is akin to self-indulgence, an abrogation of his tribal trust.

Castle-Hughes works beautifully to counterbalance his singlemindedness, endowing Pai with her own will of steel, yet tempered by a profound respect for every tradition except the one she's breaking. This is a girl who truly sees herself as a child of destiny. When Koro impedes her path, she's neither compliant nor resentful, but simply presses on, like water seeking its own level. And when she cries real tears, they're not the tears of self-pity but of a far more transcendent grief -- a vast sadness that the world would choose to be so myopic in the face of destiny. All this from a child-actor -- majestic, indeed.

The Canadian film Atanarjuat travelled back to the past to meet an ancient legend on its own ground and treated the tale realistically. Whale Rider whisks its legend up into the present, and then adds a touch of lyricism. Indeed, as the climax approaches, Caro finds a tonal equivalent to the narrative tension, letting the movie teeter between the real and the mythic, and leaving us to fix the exact location of the final frame -- is the happiness actual or imagined, a utopia arrived at or merely yearned for? We can choose, but only heaven knows.

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