Whale Rider (2002)

Posted by Maria Mills | Posted on 5:18 AM | Posted in


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Movie Review written by: Born Movie Reviews
RT Critics Rating: 9/10

Born Movie Reviews' Rating: 8/10

WHALE RIDER (2002) - Niki Caro

This film, in which its content appears to be feminist, is the best of its kind, in which it settles an empowerment theme on top of undertones of communication and family traditions. To quote Roger Ebert, Niki Caro's film "sidesteps all of the obvious cliches of the underlying story and makes itself fresh, observant, tough and genuinely moving."

Whale Rider takes place in present-day New Zealand, and revolves around Paikea Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a twelve-year-old Maori girl who lives with her family and tribe. In the tribe's culture, the leader should be the first-born grandson, which is a direct patrilineal descendant of Paikea the Whale Rider -- the one who rode on top of a whale from Hawaiki. When Pai's father (Cliff Curtis) refuses to assume leadership, wanting to pursue a career as an artist in Germany, Pai herself expresses interest in becoming a leader. However, not only is she given little encouragement by her grandfather Koro, she is also condemned and blamed for any conflicts that occur within the tribe. Although the role of chief is reserved for males only, Pai is determined to chase her dream.

As mentioned before, Whale Rider appears to be formulaic in the dream-chasing genre, where the protagonist pursues a goal that is viewed by many others as virtually impossible or improbable. I would respectfully say that the film is only predictable in the plot department. The narrative, on the other hand, is refreshingly original and raw to follow, especially in the chemistry between Pai and Koro. For the relationship of grandfather and granddaughter, they love each other very much. However, in the tradition of the tribe, Koro doubts Pai, questions her skills, and insists to everyone that she is nothing but a girl, something that is not worthy of the role of chief. For Pai's perspective, you can see how much she feels hurt, how she almost left the tribe with her father but was compelled to stay.

Pai is so amazingly portrayed by Castle-Hughes, a newcomer in the film industry. This is her first film, and I, along with other critics like Ebert, can say that she is already a movie star. In many moments, you can see the determined, hurt, and noble female she is. In other scenes, you can see the innocent child she is. Castle-Hughes, nominated for Actress in Leading Role for this film, finds the balance between the two traits, creating such a lovable and sympathetic character. There is a scene that takes place in an auditorium... which is practically the scene that gave Castle-Hughes her Oscar nomination. For sure, it is one of the best scenes in the film, if not the best.

Finally, on a surprising note, Whale Rider finishes with an unexpected third act, a climax that comes where we did not predict from, again proving that the film is still original in its own way. The best part is that this climax combines every single theme that the film has been emphasizing on since its first shot, into one magnificent marriage of substance.

In conclusion, Whale Rider is more than just an uplifting film. It is a combination of inspiration and determination, empowerment and communication, and this is all led by one single powerhouse performance. In the thematic department, its narrative is patient and gentle enough to seduce us with its coming-of-age content. It may finish the way you expected based on plot, but its transcendent ending inspires still, and the experience of viewing the film is -- you cannot help but admit -- unique.


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