Whale Rider


Directed by: Niki Caro
Written by:Niki Caro
Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa
Released: May 8, 2003
Grade: B+

Custom and tradition are an important part of Mauri life.  11-year-old Paikea (Castle-Hughes) respects this heritage but her life suffers as a result of events that were beyond her control.  For over 1,000 years, a male heir has been born to be raised as the community’s new chief.  Pleasing the current chief Koro (Paratene) was news that the wife of his eldest son Porourangi (Curtis) had given birth two twins (one boy and one girl) - all fit nicely into place.

Tragedy then struck.  The wife did not survive the childbirth and the baby boy died shortly after.  In a mix of grief and distaste for his own father, Porourangi left the coastal village and headed to Europe to leave the mess far behind him.  Paikea, the young baby girl, was then raised by her grandfather Koro and grandmother Flowers (Haughton).

Back in the present, the question has arisen who will succeed Koro as chief.  He prays to the gods for guidance and decides to train other first born males in the community and test them to see which is most worthy.  Paikea too wants a chance to train but the steadfast Koro is disgusted that she would dare make such a suggestion – a woman cannot and will not be chief.  With relations badly strained between Paikea and her grandfather, the gods will soon intervene and give her the chance to prove herself…

You may not have heard of the film before but Whale Rider arrives in Australia with quite a reputation.  It won the People’s Choice Award at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival in 2002.  One only need look at recent winners of this award to see the weight that it carries.  Amelie (2001), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), American Beauty (1999), Life Is Beautiful (1998) between them earned 12 Academy Awards and 31 overall nominations.  How’s that for a track record?

Perhaps I’ve been jaded by the hype but despite enjoying the film, I can’t think of it as being something amazing or memorable.  The film’s trailer promised this would be a film that would move me, but my emotions were well in check here.  The only aspect of the film for which the hype was justified was the performance of young Keisha Castle-Hughes.  She gives an incredibly brave performance that asks her to harness a range of feelings.  This must be a huge relief to the casting crew who auditioned over 10,000 girls and only found Keisha, who had never acted before, at a New Zealand primary school.

Whale Rider is based on a 1985 novel from author Witi Ihimaera.  The film itself is filmed at Witi’s hometown of Whangara which is on New Zealand’s East Coast.  The location mirrors that of the novel and ensures all the physical aspects of the book are translated perfectly onto the screen.  It’s a story particular to the Mauri people which would ordinarily have me question its appeal to a wider audience but results from festivals like Toronto allay any doubts.

Overall, it’s a nice, enjoyable film that you almost certainly won’t dislike.  Whether it goes above and beyond though is a decision I will leave to yourself as I cannot find the evidence to support such a claim.