It always strikes me that there’s a special affinity between the American west and the lands down under of Australia and New Zealand. I noticed it especially a few years ago after watching Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli in succession. The openness of the land, the sense of adventure in the Outback and the feeling of leaping into the unknown can all be thematically linked to the western genre. Recently, while watching Niki Caro’s 2003 film Whale Rider I discovered that there are links to be found also between New Zealand and the history of America.
Whale Rider is based on a 1987 book by Witi Ihimaera about a young girl struggling for her grandfather’s acceptance in a society that undervalues females. In the film she is named Paikea, after the mythological forefather of her Maori tribe who, legend has it, rode on the back of a whale. Paikea’s grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), is the local tribe leader and has been waiting many years for an heir in the patrilineal society. His own son, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), is unsuited to the task after his wife and son (Pai’s twin brother) die in childbirth. So Koro raises the girl and they develop a strong bond, one that is never strong enough to allow that Pai could be the leader. Koro decides it is time to find a new leader and calls on the first born sons to engage in training and feats of strength and endurance until one emerges the clear favorite. Pai, not permitted to participate, looks on and studies the exercises. She was born with a drive and instinct for leadership, but Koro is blinded by his insistence on maintaining the male line of succession for fear that bad luck will otherwise be visited upon them.
In this story of a community of Maori I see parallels to my own country’s American Indians. Both are traditional societies whose culture was forever spoiled by the arrival of Europeans. I don’t know a great deal about Maori history or traditions, but from what I can gather, they didn’t suffer nearly as much as the American Indians and their numbers are much stronger in New Zealand than are the Indians in the United States. If we take Niki Caro’s direction as at all reflective of a way of life, then to grow up in a Maori community looks perhaps as difficult as growing up in a poor minority community in the U.S.
The children attend school and are mostly cared for by women. The men, with the exception of Koro, have little positive influence in their children’s lives. Porourangi, for one, abandons his daughter to live in Germany. His younger brother is overweight and shiftless, spending his dies smoking marijuana and drinking. Another child has a father who was released from prison just in time to see a school performance, but he’s gone just as quickly in a car full of associates who don’t look like anyone I’d want my child to be introduced to. The alcohol consumption made me think of American Indians, who are known to often suffer from alcoholism.
Caro also wrote the screen adaptation of the novel. It is a deeply moving tribute to Maori culture and in particular to the girl Paikea. An 11-year old Keisha Castle-Hughes made her film debut in the lead role and, at 12, became the youngest ever Oscar nominee for Best Actress. It is a performance that exhibits a depth of maturity unseen in most adult actors. There is one seen in which she is required to choke back tears while delivering a speech about her grandfather and the leadership history of the tribe that is emotionally devastating. I can’t recall any actor, male or female, old or young, capable of handling deep emotion with such poise and control.
Though the Maori have had agreements with the European settlers since the nineteenth century and have been afforded rights, they still exist on the margins of society. In spite of and perhaps even because of the splintering effects of their downtrodden economic status, Koro is determined to pull them together. Whale Rider becomes not just a story of a girl trying to win the admiration (in addition to the love she already has) of her grandfather, but of a people trying to relocate their way in the world. One of the final beautiful images in the film is of a long canoe loaded with about 40 Maori men, all rowing along the sea together in time, their fearless leaders steering them right and true.
"Whale Rider" arrives in theaters already proven as one of the great audience-grabbers of recent years. It won the audience awards as the most popular film at both the Toronto and Sundance film festivals, played to standing ovations, left audiences in tears. I recite these facts right at the top of this review because I fear you might make a hasty judgment that you don't want to see a movie about a 12-year-old Maori girl who dreams of becoming the chief of her people. Sounds too ethnic, uplifting and feminist, right? The genius of the movie is the way is sidesteps all of the obvious cliches of the underlying story and makes itself fresh, observant, tough and genuinely moving. There is a vast difference between movies for 12-year-old girls, and movies about 12-year-old girls, and "Whale Rider" proves it.
The movie, which takes place in the present day in New Zealand, begins with the birth of twins. The boy and the mother die. The girl, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) survives. Her father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), an artist, leaves New Zealand, and the little girl is raised and much loved by her grandparents Koro and Nanny Flowers.
Koro is the chief of these people. Porourangi would be next in line but has no interest in returning home. Pai believes that she could serve as the chief, but her grandfather, despite his love, fiercely opposes this idea. He causes Pai much hurt by doubting her, questioning her achievements, insisting in the face of everything she achieves that she is only a girl.
The movie, written and directed by Niki Caro, inspired by a novel by Witi Ihimaera, describes these events within the rhythms of daily life. This is not a simplistic fable but the story of real people living in modern times. There are moments when Pai is lost in discouragement and despair, and when her father comes for a visit she almost leaves with him. But, no, her people need her--whether or not her grandfather realizes it.
Pai is played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, a newcomer of whom it can only be said: This is a movie star. She glows. She stands up to her grandfather in painful scenes, she finds dignity, and yet the next second she's running around the village like the kid she is. The other roles are also strongly cast, especially Rawiri Paratene and Vicky Haughton as the grandparents.
One day Koro summons all of the young teenage boys of the village to a series of compulsory lessons on how to be a Maori, and the leader of Maoris. There's an amusing sequence where they practice looking ferocious to scare their enemies. Pai, of course, is banned from these classes, but she eavesdrops and enlists a wayward uncle to reveal some of the secrets of the males.
And then--well, the movie does not end as we expect. It does not march obediently to standard plot requirements but develops an unexpected crisis and an unexpected solution. There is a scene set at a school ceremony, where Pai has composed a work in honor of her people and asked her grandfather to attend. Despite his anger, he will come, won't he? The movie seems headed for the ancient cliche of the auditorium door which opens at the last moment to reveal the person that the child onstage desperately hopes to see--but no, that's not what happens.
It isn't that Koro comes or that he doesn't come, but that something else altogether happens. Something in a larger and more significant scale, that brings together all of the themes of the film into a magnificent final sequence. It's not just an uplifting ending, but a transcendent one, inspired and inspiring, and we realize how special this movie really is. So many films by and about teenagers are mired in vulgarity and stupidity; this one, like its heroine, dares to dream.