When you work with children, it’s important to keep it very, very real for them. so when Koro hits Hemi on the back of the head, he really hits Hemi on the back of the head, And it hurt. And it’s a lovely little moment.
— Niki Caro, Commentary track
“At the beginning of any film, there’s a huge challenge in terms of setting the tone, of setting up the story. And particularly with this film, I tried in the writing to keep it as economical as possible, and as simple and heartfelt as possible,” says writer-director Niki Caro on the commentary track for Whale Rider.” It’s an appropriately poetic and somewhat general, for a film about a little girl who goes on to challenge — because she must — a traditionally masculinist culture. And then, Caro adds, “What we see here is a terribly traumatic birth.” Indeed. The scene is noisy, tragic, difficult to watch: a Maori woman dies giving birth to twins, one of whom, the boy, is stillborn.
As the bloody scene occurs, the narrator speaks, Paikea (played by the astonishing Keisha Castle-Hughes, whom Caro describes as “so little, totally inexperienced, and yet she’s absolutely a match for any of these adults she’s working with”), explaining, “There was no gladness when I was born.” The dead woman’s husband, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), watches helplessly, then explodes in rage and frustration, when his own father, Koro (Rawiri Paratene, of whom Caro says, understandably, “Ah, he takes my breath away”), is all too ready to blame the surviving child, the daughter Pai, for her brother’s death. Porourangi storms off, leaving the girl to the care of his mother, Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton). Fortunately, she knows how to handle her husband, and the child not only survives his initial aggravation, but will teach him a few things as well.
All this happens in a couple of minutes, and the rest of the film takes place some 11 years later, when Pai has grown into an inquisitive, courageous, and self-sufficient girl. She first appears in this incarnation riding on a bicycle with her grandfather Koro, who has come to love her dearly. Living with her grandparents in a Whangara community on the eastern coast of New Zealand, she’s named for a demi-god ancestor who arrived in New Zealand on the back of a whale. However, as she is reminded frequently, 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, in spite of self-doubts shaped by her grandfather’s prejudice, the future chieftain.
Adapted by Caro from the novel by Maori author Witi Ihimaera, Whale Rider is part saga and part fairy tale, part kids’ adventure tale and part poignant coming of age story, 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 (plus some digital work and archival footage), and yet maintains an intelligent, simple-seeming narrative structure.
Pai comes into her own by juggling expectations and desires: she seeks to please her grandfather (whom she calls Paka), learning to accommodate his difficult-to-read expectations as well as her lessons at school (for a climactic performance, she must write a speech about her ancestors — a challenging and instructive exercise). She also educates herself with regard to 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 (“When she was born,” says her grandfather, “that’s when things went wrong for us”). Still, she is gifted and eager, ensuring that it’s only a matter of time before traditional expectations will be overturned.
While the film is imperfect (some plot turns are abrupt; the “aboriginal hoopla,” as noted by the Village Voice‘s Michael Atkinson, “comes off as tribal ritual for its own sake”; the generally rousing tone doesn’t detail the poor conditions or political difficulties the Ngati Konohi face), it has also inspired much devotion from critics and scholars of “indigenous film” (recall that Harvey Keitel played a Maori tribesman in The Piano, meaning the movie image pickings are slim outside of New Zealand).
But even for its representational reductiveness, the film is akids’ movie with something to say, looking at relationships between generations and 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 and unintended derision from the next room (“Take her with you! She’s no use to me!”).
This crisis sparks 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. “Why doesn’t he want me?” she asks. (As Caro puts it, children “say what they feel, and we’ve all felt that. It’s a real basic human experience, to be rejected.”)
This conversation leads to a (quickly reversed) mutual 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. The DVD includes useful extras that illuminate the child’s individual potency, her heritage, and “the New Zealand character,” such as the featurettes, the factful “Te Waka: Building the Canoe,” “Behind the Scenes” (recounting the novel’s inspiration and the film’s production), and “Whale Rider: The Soundtrack Showcase,” as well as deleted (and unnecessary) scenes (such as one showing Porourangi’s arrival at a celebratory community dinner; or Pai waking her father, sweetly, before Koro comes to the doorway to announce breakfast).
“The great challenge of making this film was to find Pai, to find a girl who could play Paikea, not an actor. To find the real girl,” says Caro in “Behind the Scenes.” Castle-Hughes describes the character like so: “To me, she’s like a girl who knows who she is and knows what she wants. And she wants to be more than she is.” She defies her grandfather to earn his love and respect, and during the scenes where she secretly studies the warriors’ skills — and begins to outstrip her boy peers (including Hemi [Mana Taumaunu]), in fighting and swimming — Pai 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 often feel more acutely 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, and so much more. She is wholly engaging and elegant, on her own terms.