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. "Whale Rider"

Just because a female director sets out to make a female empowerment film doesn't mean it can't be charming while rousing the troops. Writer-director Niki Caro presents this story of a Maori girl in New Zealand whose ancestor, according to tribal legend, came from a faraway place, riding on the back of a whale. It's a film of reality and fantasy, treating farfetched dreams and mysticism with acceptance, respecting the tribe's dignity and beliefs.

Koro (Rawiri Paratene) is the Chief of the Ngati Kanohi tribe of Whangara which resides in a coastal fishing village. His thought is that his firstborn son, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), will succeed him as chief. When it's clear that Porourangi has no interest in filling Koro's leadership shoes, Koro looks to his son's children. But tragedy takes over when Porourangi's wife dies in childbirth along with a twin boy, sending Porourangi to seek solace for his loss elsewhere. He leaves daughter Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes, in her film debut), the surviving girl twin, in the care of Koro. "The girl is no use to me", Koro blusters, disappointed that as a girl, she's not a candidate for tribal leadership.

Despite that initial reaction, by the time Pai is eleven, we see grandfather Koro picking her up at school and riding her home on his bicycle, displaying a grandfather's affection. At the same time, he is schooling the firstborn sons of the village in the arts of leadership and "the old ways," demonstrating ritual behavior and martial arts in an effort to find his successor. Pai tries to join in but must settle for a distant observation of the training she wants so much. On such matters, her grandfather is uncompromising, paying no heed to her abilities. Countering his rejections is her indomitable, no-nonsense grandmother Flowers (Vicky Haughton), Pai's harbor of understanding.

Porourangi briefly returns from his home in England where he has become an exhibiting artist. He asks Pai to come back with him and she decides to go but, as they travel along the seacoast, she seems to hear voices from the deep drawing her back. She returns to village and grandparents to pursue her destiny. It's achieved when a pod of whales beach themselves as though in a sacrificial ceremony. The tribal connection to these beasts is vividly emphasized by a community effort to tug them back to sea. Despite their backbreaking labor and ultimate heartbreak, they are not equal to the task... but Pai is.

Eleven year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes was cast for this part from thousands and the selection proves on the mark. This girl's quality of intelligent self-containment leads us through the emotional travails of her character and bodes well for her in an acting career should she pursue one. I rooted for her as I did for Anna Paquin when she emerged in "The Piano" and for Natalie Portman, introduced to us in "The Professional" in 1994.

Writer-director Niki Caro's feminist dream-wish also turns on the theme of personal adaptation in the framework of a new world culture. Her screenplay is based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera and was vetted closely by no less than the actual elders of the Maori's Ngati Kanohi. She entered their tribal world with the necessary patience and humility to effectively direct her gender message with documentary acccuracy. "Anybody who says there are things a girl can't do will have to answer to me!", she declares. Messages aside, time with this little girl and her brethren is well spent.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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