It's rare that I'm simply floored by a movie these days; often, it takes a moment later the same day to remember what I've just seen in the theater. That said, it was a pleasure to walk into "Whale Rider" knowing little about the film and walk out considering it one of the best films I've seen in the past few years. The fact that nearly everyone involved with the movie is a relative unknown makes a film this masterfully done that much more surprising and pleasing.
Newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes stars as Pai, a 12-year-old girl who lives with her grandfather, Koro and grandmother in a Maori community on the Eastern coast of New Zealand. Tribal history has stated that the first-born son will be the chieftain of the tribe, but after a difficult birth, Pai survives, while her twin brother does not make it. Her father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), starts a new life in Europe, leaving his daughter in the care of his father, who will not come to terms with the fact that Pai - the next in the bloodline - might be the first female chief.
As she becomes older, Koro still shows care for his daughter, but the way he acts on the surface suggest that his dissapointment at not having a grandson still exists. Pai, who has grown into a determined, intelligent and kind 12-year-old, sets out to learn more about her culture and get respect from her grandfather. Audiences have seen films where a younger individual faces challenges to prove themselves capable of leadership to older members who have their own beliefs about their history.
However, this one works wonderfully, and for several reasons. Rawiri Paratene's performance as Koro is absolutely terrific. His performance is intense, fierce, and yet complex. While he's stern to Pai, he manages - which is quite a feat, given the character - to make the character at least somewhat sympathetic. He wants to care for his granddaughter and still hold onto the values and traditions that he has known. The scenes where he finally begins to realize the potential of Pai are extremely well-done and quite powerful. Throughout the movie, but especially towards the end, this is a very compelling performance. Keisha Castle-Hughes is simply fantastic as Pai, superbly portraying the character's ambition, intelligence and caring. A speech meant for her grandfather in the last half of the film is one of the film's several powerful moments. Supporting performances are strong across the board. These are largely non-professional actors, yet these are some of the best performances I've seen all year.
Director Niki Caro handles the picture superbly, giving the film a grounded, spiritual, tranquil and poetic beauty (although a completely different movie, passages of "Whale Rider" reminded me a bit of the tone and feel of some of Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line"). There's emotional moments, but nothing that I found sappy or unearned. There's even the occasional bits of humor, which feel right for the situation and add some lightness to the movie. And the ending...oh, the ending. "Whale Rider" is merely excellent throughout the majority of its running time, but the ending - which would be wrong to ruin here and I'm displeased that some reviews have ruined it - lifts it all up into another level altogether. It's simply magical and remarkably uplifting. The film won audience awards at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals.
"Whale Rider" is still haunting me a week after I've seen it. Wonderfully written, strongly acted and beautiful to watch, "Whale Rider" is magnificent. It's a true gem in the middle of the Summer season - a special movie for all ages.