“There was no gladness when I was born.” Whale Rider begins with tragedy. Noisy tragedy. A woman gives birth to two children, one stillborn. As her husband, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), watches helplessly, she dies in the process, leaving him bereft, angry, and confronted by his own father, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), ready to blame the surviving child, a daughter, for the death of the male child. Porourangi storms off, leaving the baby to the care of his mother, Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton). Fortunately, she knows how to handle her husband in ways that even he doesn’t imagine.
All this happens in a couple of minutes, and the rest of the film takes place some 11 years later, when Pai (the astonishing Keisha Castle-Hughes) has grown into an inquisitive, courageous, and self-sufficient girl. She’s living with her grandparents in a Whangara community on the eastern coast of New Zealand. Named for a demi-god ancestor, Paikea, who arrived in New Zealand on the back of a whale, Pai is not the first-born son who has the chance to be the next Whangara chieftain. According to tradition, no girl can even aspire to such a fate. Pai will prove that such thinking is hopelessly backwards, as she is, indeed and in spite of her self-doubts shaped by her grandfather’s prejudice, the future chieftain.
Based on the novel by Maori author Witi Ihimaera and adapted by director Niki Caro, Whale Rider is part saga and part fairy tale, part kids’ adventure tale and part poignant coming of age story, part, part girl power drama and part adult life lesson. It’s all these things, as well as a rousing good time — with beautiful beachscapes and stunning whales a-swimming imagery by cinematographer Leon Narbey, and yet maintains an elegant, simple-seeming narrative structure.
Pai comes into her own by learning her lessons at school (she must write a speech about her ancestors) as well as learning the skills of a Maori warrior. In this she is the conventional good and gallant girl, but also something of a bad girl, in the sense that boys get to be bad as they seek their heroic fates. She undertakes her education on the sly, because Koro teaches the skills class — for boys only. Still, she is gifted and eager, ensuring that it’s only a matter of time before traditional expectations will be overturned.
The film works by developing relationships between characters — which means between generations and between individuals, across cultures and over oceans of bad feelings. Porourangi returns from Europe, where he’s been selling and showing his art, making a living off his translations of his traditional culture. (Koro passes predictable judgment: “You call it work, but it’s not work. It’s souvenirs.”) Perhaps out of his own resentment, Porourangi lets slip that he has a white, pregnant girlfriend. Furious, Koro cruelly turns his anger at the nearest, easiest, most vulnerable target, Pai, who overhears his pointless derision from the next room. The ensuing crisis involves a touching reunion between father and daughter, during which both parties assume her maturity beyond her years.
“I can’t be what he wants,” sighs Porourangi. “Me neither,” Pai astutely adds, huddled under a blanket her father has brought outside to soothe her chill as they look out on the sea. This conversation leads to a (quickly reversed) decision that Pai should return to Europe with her father, but it is more important for the frank and persistent respect it pays to Pai as a character, and to her childish intelligence and intuition more generally. She’s not so much charismatic or adorable (though you might call her either), as she is resilient, exquisite, and worthy. During the scenes where she secretly studies the warriors’ skills — and begins to outstrip her boy peers, in fighting and swimming — she surely makes a spirited and heartening figure.
But while the film engenders enthusiasm for her mythic abilities and her imminent fate, it also makes her rather like an ordinary girl. And that’s her great strength and significance. Pai is thoughtful and serious, but attuned to a kind of vibrant rhythm (imaged here in her affiliation with the whales, but also having to do with the sea, and more abstractly, life cycles, breathing, and blood flow) that kids tend to feel better than adults. Think of all the images of girls in U.S. pop movies — so halter-topped, so perfectly coiffed and appointed, so self-consciously cute, so Mary-Kate-and-Ashleyed. Pai is none of that but much more. She is wholly engaging and elegant, on her own terms.