[Screen It]

(2003) (Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene) (PG-13)

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Drama: A young New Zealand girl challenges tradition and her rigid grandfather by trying to prove that she's as capable as any boy of becoming the leader of her people.
Among the Ngati Konohi tribe of New Zealand, it is believed that the spirit of Paikea, their founding father who arrived by whale, will deliver to them a male infant who will become their leader. Their tradition bound chief, Koro (RAWIRI PARATENE), certainly believes that, but he's devastated when the wife and newborn male child of his son, Porourangi (CLIFF CURTIS), die during childbirth, leaving only a female newborn.

Porourangi doesn't want her and leaves, and Koro has similar feelings, but his more warmhearted wife Nanny Flowers (VICKY HAUGHTON) decides that they must keep and raise the girl. Many years later, Pai (KEISHA CASTLE-HUGHES) is a 12-year-old tomboy who's just as capable as any of the local boys.

Yet, when Koro decides he must find a new leader among the children, he forsakes Pai, much to her dismay, and doesn't allow her to participate in any of the ritualized training and education. Nevertheless, and with the help of her grandmother and more laidback uncle Rawiri (GRANT ROA), Pai sets out to prove that she's a worthy descendent of the whale rider and rightful heir to becoming her tribe's leader.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
In the Broadway play and later the Hollywood adaptation of "Fiddler on the Roof," the character of Tevye suddenly breaks into the song "Tradition" about customs and who has the final say at home, all as he laments what appears to be the diminishing old, ritualized way of life.

In "Whale Rider," the patriarchal figure Koro must be related to Tevye or has been influenced by "Fiddler" as he's just as obsessed with familial and cultural tradition. Rather than that of the Jewish faith, however, he's concerned with maintaining the rituals of his tribe and in particular that of having a male heir to take his role as tribal leader.

In fact, the movie - written and directed by Niki Caro who's adapted Witi Ihimaera's best-selling 1986 novel - is based on the Maori legend of a whale rider who arrived in New Zealand as their founding father of sorts and is a lyrical, big screen representation of it.

The picture is also a coming of age story fueled by the breakthrough performance of newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes as the girl earmarked to be the title subject, much to the chagrin of Koro, her rigid paternal grandfather.

Unfortunately for her, she's been raised by him (and her more caring and understanding grandmother), knowing full well that her arrival symbolizes the end of the whale rider, at least in her family and Koro's mind.

In most cases, that would lead to childhood depression, rebellion or social and familial maladjustment. Since this is a movie, however, it means that the young girl - named after the legendary figure - will battle the odds to be the chief she was supposed to be.

Thus, following the brief setup where she survives her birth that took the lives of her mother and twin brother, the film follows her various attempts to get her grandfather (who's also her father figure since her real dad hit the road and is little more than an occasional visitor in her life) to accept and love her.

While he obviously does the latter, his firm adherence to tradition puts the two at odds and delivers one complication and obstacle after another for her. It also wholeheartedly engages the viewer who, by both default and design, wants the girl to succeed.

Beyond that plot setup and Castle-Hughes stunning performance, what makes the film work so well is its arresting visual look. Shooting with cinematographer Leon Narbey ("The Price of Milk," "Desperate Remedies"), Caro ("Memory and Desire") has crafted a beautifully composed picture that's nothing short of alluring.

That's not to say that it's perfect, however, as there are some flaws that slightly undermine the effort. Chief among them - at least for me - is the ending. While fables and such aren't always realistic in the contemporary sense of the word, they work due to their fantastical structure. Here, everything is portrayed realistically until the end when things get a little far-fetched, even if they work for the story as it's been designed.

Things also get a bit disjointed and rushed following that event, as if Caro wasn't sure how or where to stop her tale. Those who've been sucked in by the story probably won't care or notice, but it's another slight flaw that somewhat diminishes the work.

Nevertheless, Castle-Hughes is brilliant as Pai and delivers an entirely credible and what seems to be an effortless performance. There's never any sense of self-awareness (often a problem with child performers) and she simply is the character in what has to be one of the best debuts in the past several decades. The scene where she delivers a speech specifically prepared to inspire her grandfather - who may or may not show for it - is heartbreaking in its emotional depth.

Rawiri Paratene ("What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?" "Rapanui") is also quite good playing the rigid and curmudgeonly grandfather who must struggle between his love for her and his traditional beliefs. Supporting performances by the likes of Vicky Haughton ("Her Majesty," "Jubilee") as the grandmother, Grant Roa (making his debut) as the laidback uncle, and the terrific Cliff Curtis ("Training Day," "The Majestic") as the occasionally seen father, are solid across the board.

Beautiful to behold, featuring those strong roles and a can't miss coming of age story, "Whale Rider" might slightly falter at the end. Otherwise, it's an engaging, well told and moving tale that rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed May 30, 2003 / Posted June 20, 2003

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