This is one of those movies that draws you into its world completely with its honesty. The 12-year old star, Keisha Castle-Hughes is so genuine and charismatic, it is no wonder she has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. She is a natural talent, beautiful, inspiring, and delightful to watch.
Whale Rider has the art-house feel to it, because it deals almost exclusively with emotions. Village life and underwater scenes of whales are lovingly photographed and accompanied by a haunting score. There is a lot of Maori culture in it, but the desire for acceptance and respect are universally understood. If you like character-driven stories with heartwarming elements of the supernatural, you'll enjoy Whale Rider.
Paikea's difficult relationship with her grandfather, who scorns her because she is a girl and not the male heir he needs, is beautifully played here, and Keisha Castle-Hughes is a sensitive and winning actress who endows Paikea with the "strength, courage, intelligence, and leadership" which are the hallmarks of the culture. Always trying to learn the old ways so that she can win her grandfather's love, she is, instead, constantly berated for trying to break the taboo of the marai by assuming a boy's role.
The striking cinematography (Leon Narbey) captures the spirit of the land, while the underwater photography of whales, as Paikea's spirit is drawn to them throughout the film, is stunning. Maori chants and ceremonial dances convey many of the Maori cultural traditions and illustrate their similarities with those of the Hawaiians, who share a common origin. The exchange of breath between Maori as a greeting represents a sharing of each person's essence, a factor which achieves tremendous symbolic significance in a climactic moment at the end of the film.
Because this is a film which conveys a message, it is not surprising that some of the characters here are two-dimensional, especially Koro, the grandfather, so consumed with the need to find a successor that he is unable to be a person. But Paikea and the other children in the film more than make up for some of the adults' predictability with their palpable delight and pride in their culture and the fun they have learning the old ways. A fascinating glimpse at a vanishing culture, this magnificent and moving film will itself help preserve its history and traditions. Mary Whipple