The New Zealand based film “Whale Rider” was the indie phenomenon of the 2002 award season. Directed by Niki Caro and starring 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, both of which receiving numerous awards and critical praise. Castle-Hughes was at the time the youngest person to ever be nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Academy Awards. The film is about girl power, about strength and determination in the face of male-dominated traditions.
Paikea, is a young Maori girl descended from a long line of tribal chiefs. She would be in line to take over one day but she happens to be a girl. Only firstborn sons are allowed to rule. Her mother and twin brother died in childbirth and she is being raised by her Father and Grandfather named Koro. Koro has always resented Paikea and blames her for killing his daughter and the firstborn son. Although they love each other, they have a very strained relationship. Their society is deeply traditional and has no desire to change, but with Paikea’s will and determination, not to mention natural born talents, she will try to push Koro to institute long-needed changes.
This relationship between Paikea and Koro is at the heart of the film. Paikea is constantly testing Koro’s patience as she tries to train with the boys and at one point defeats one of them in a stick exercise. Blasphemy! Koro feels that she is desecrating sacred rituals. She then goes to live with another woman and shows off some amazing skills in the water. While back home Koro slips into a deep depression, his conflicted feelings have thrown his whole life out of whack. He can’t even find it in his heart to attend Paikea’s big play at school. At this play she gives this absolutely heartbreaking speech, that really kicks the film into high gear. Koro ends up taking a walk along the beach to get some air and encounters a beached whale. He gets some help and the race is on to save it. While Paikea arrives home just in time to become the person she was born to be. With a calm confidence way beyond her years she instinctually climbs atop the giant mammal and directs it back to sea. Just like the old stories and folklore foretold, Paikea is the one. Koro has this major epiphany and accepts Paikea as the true heir and next tribal chief. “Whale Rider” is a deeply emotional and entertaining film without being overly sappy and over the top. It feels true to life and all the performances are absolutely incredible.