With Moana introducing many Americans to the rich cultures of Oceania, now seemed a marvelous time to revisit a landmark in Maori representation, writer/director Niki Caro’s Whale Rider. Adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s coming-of-age novel of the same name, Whale Rider unfurls an inspiring story that celebrates Maori tradition, while criticizing its patriarchal structure.
Plucked from a casting search of 10,000 New Zealand children, Keisha Castle-Hughes makes her screen debut as Paikea (or Pai to her family), a Maori girl born to defy expectations and save her people. But first, she must break them from their self-defeating biases. “Everybody was waiting for the first-born boy to lead us,” Pai intones in a soft narration that overlooks a squirming newborn in a pink blanket, lying next to a still blue-blanketed bundle, “but he died. And I didn’t.”
Her tribe has long awaited a prophet, the Whale Rider who would come from the line of the mythic leader Paikea. But it was assumed this chief of chiefs would be a boy. Pai is of his line, and so her father (Cliff Curtis) defiantly names her for Paikea (before sodding off). But the death of her mother and twin brother upon Pai’s arrival casts a pall over her community, and creates a divide between she and Koro, her staunchly traditional (read: sexist) grandfather (Rawiri Paratene). However, Pai’s incorrigible charm, dedicated love of her people and heritage, and never-say-die attitude will prove to Koro and the rest of her tribe that she is the Whale Rider of legend, destined to revitalize the spirit and pride of her people.
For all its mythic ties, Caro keeps her story sweetly intimate, focusing on Pai and her family. Pai’s relationship with her grandfather is a storm of love mingled with grief. But her stalwart grandmother (Vicky Haughton) has her back. And while her mourning dad went AWOL, Pai enjoys the guidance of her goofy but good-hearted uncle (Grant Roa) and his smirking girlfriend (Rachel House of Hunt For The Wilderpeople!), who train her in the warrior ways of the taiaha (a traditional fighting stick). While her grandfather ignores Pai to seek his prophet in a batch of unruly schoolboys, this incorrigible little girl goes to the fringe of her tribe, learning from them, and inspiring them to step up for their rightful place in Koro’s world.
Pai loves her grandfather and his culture, but also sees how its caste structure is flawed. She is driven to carve out a path where all of her people can join in the journey, rather than being cast aside while the “real men” charge on. It’s a movie 14 years old, but all too relevant.
Whale Rider was made for under $10 million yet is astonishing in scope, employing carefully chosen shots of whales and the ocean to expand Pai’s world beyond her humble seaside village. And in doing so, this modestly budgeted adventure opens audiences up to Maori culture in a way that is haunting and awe-inspiring.
In college, I was so struck by Caro’s Whale Rider that I collaborated with a film professor to create an independent study on New Zealand filmmaking, with a focus on female-made movies and Maori portrayals. Simply put, Whale Rider opened my eyes to a world I’d not known from hundreds of Hollywood movies I’d mainlined my entire life. And it is a wondrous world, alive with stories, color, warriors, songs, and dance that challenge, move, and inspire.