When I was writing in this space about Jeffrey Blitz's Spellbound a couple of weeks ago, I confessed how much of a sucker I am for sports movies and other pictures that detail the triumph of an underdog. Let me add to the list of films that I might group in that category (along with Stand and Deliver) Niki Caro's Whale Rider. The winner of audience awards at film festivals as different as Toronto and Sundance, Whale Rider offers a narrative trajectory that pretty much ends up where we expect. But the path to getting there is as surprising as it is ultimately powerful. The whole of the film is less like a conventional work of fiction and much more like a poem written in light.
Adapted for the screen by Caro from the novel by Witi Ihimaera, Whale Rider is the story of Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a contemporary 12-year-old New Zealand Maori girl who lives with her grandparents in the small fishing village of Whangara, where the conveniences of modern life have eroded the traditions of tribal community. Pai is the second-born of fraternal twins, but neither her mother nor her twin brother survived delivery. Pai's grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) is the village chief and traces his lineage back to the village's ancient founder who legendarily arrived on the back of a whale. Pai's father Porourangi (Clif Curtis) is supposed to succeed Koro as chief, but he has never wanted that role, and after his beloved wife's death, he has moved to Europe and become an artist of at least modest accomplishment.
Caro handles Porourangi's departure from Whangara with great gentleness. Porourangi is obviously not a factor in his daughter's rearing, yet we believe his assertions that he loves Pai greatly, and we understand that she believes this, too. The tribal tradition of extended family defuses Whale Rider as a story of abandonment and neglect. Pai is a normal, well-adjusted child blessed with the love of Koro and her grandmother Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton). The depth of affection among these characters is so great, that quality alone is enough to reduce a viewer like me to tears.
But despite the cushioning atmosphere of love, not all is well in Whangara. Around the edges we can see why Koro is worried about the future of his people. We see nothing ugly or even definitively irresponsible. But the townspeople seem to have grown corpulent with indolence and through indulgence in alcohol and marijuana. Koro is frustrated that Porourangi is not available to lead the villagers back to the traditions which have always made them strong, which have enabled them to endure so long. And he is even more frustrated that he has no grandson to train for that role. Reluctantly, Koro gathers about him all the young boys of the community, boys about Pai's age. His objective is to school them in the ancient ways and to provide them tests of courage, strength and endurance in hopes of identifying a leader who can become chief when the time arrives. Pai yearns to be included in this training, but she is excluded because she is a girl.
Had this film been made by Disney or probably any other Hollywood studio, it would no doubt have proceeded in a straight line. Pai would practice manly skills out of sight of her grandfather and ultimately step forward to defeat the chosen boy in some critical contest. Elements of that strategy are employed, but the direct approach of a gender battle is avoided. The question isn't whether Pai is better than the boys; the question is which of the community's youngsters possesses the understanding of and devotion to tradition, and even more, which child has that indefinable quality we call charisma, the ability to inspire others to follow.
We know from the outset that Pai is the chosen one because of Caro's brilliant casting. An athletic tomboy who is all arms, legs and infectious smile, Castle-Hughes has the same luminescence and prepossession that Natalie Portman exhibited at the same age in The Profesional. Still, we don't know how Pai will overcome her grandfather's ingrained and unchallenged sexism to convince him that she should be chief. It's a terrific twist that Koro and Pai love each other, but that's not the mechanism. Because she certainly does ours, we think she might melt his heart with the award-winning speech she writes and delivers about tribal tradition. But that's not it either. The events of the film's shattering climax slip the bonds of New Zealand and all the earth in its entirety to be played out in a world of magic and myth. Caro doesn't bother with any demand that we understand her picture's end in literal terms or even that we have the tools to apprehend the story's conclusion as objective correlative. What happens to Pai transcends expression in words. It merely is. And we know what it means.
- Follow the leader: 12-year-old Maori girl Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) discovers her destiny in Whale Rider.