Whale Rider can be seen as an antidote, or counterpoint, to Lee Tamahori’s 1994 film Once Were Warriors, which was a grim depiction of dislocated Maoris, New Zealand’s aborigines, mired in brutality and alcoholism and all the other frustrated behavior engendered by permanent poverty and an outcast status. Here we see them in a more benevolent setting, a small coastal village with all the modern accouterments, but also an ancient tribal structure that serves to maintain their sense of identity and worth. Although still poor, they tend to be supportive of each other; relationships, aside from the usual familial ruptures, are benign and the main vice appears to be smoking.
Unfortunately, the old traditions are unyieldingly patriarchal. The movie begins with the birth of Pai and the simultaneous death of her mother and her twin brother. Pai’s father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), is understandably devastated, as is her grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), who seems to grieve mainly because Pai is a girl. He had been looking forward to grooming her twin brother for tribal leadership; so bitter is he at being deprived of this heir that he’s urging Porourangi to remarry and try again before the poor guy has even left the hospital where his wife has died.
We then flash forward 12 years and Porourangi has moved to Germany where he lives as a sculptor, leaving Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) to be raised by Koro and her grandmother, Nanny (Vicky Haughton). Nanny is a sympathetic character, but Koro is still mourning because his bloodline is in danger of dying out. What he fails to see is that young Pai, with her determination, essential seriousness and dedication to tribal culture is positively oozing innate leadership qualities. And the dramatic crux of the story becomes when and if he can make the conceptual breakthrough of seeing his granddaughter as more than a lowly female. Since this is contrary to everything to believes in, it would probably take a miracle for him to be transformed. And a miracle is pretty much what happens.
This could be a fairly predictable story — and to some extent it is — but the clammy hand of sentiment is held at bay by the performance of young Castle-Hughes. Her Pai is neither excessively cutesy nor spunky (thank god), but rather a combination of grim determination and emotional fragility, conveying her natural sense of entitlement, but also her painful awareness of being a disappointment to her grandfather. And though the film has an insular, fable-like quality — the outside world only intrudes when Porourangi, on one of his sporadic visits home, reveals that he’s impregnated his German girlfriend, which Koro sees as something close to original sin — it doesn’t flinch from showing the harshness of adult indifference. There’s a particularly affecting subplot about a boy who joins a class Koro is conducting to teach the village youngsters (all boys, of course) about their warrior heritage. His strong desire to please Koro seems at first the result of being intimidated by the old guy, but we come to understand the neediness behind it once we meet his tough-guy dad, who seems to have wandered in from Once Were Warriors.
The film manages to view the Maori’s traditions with a certain amount of ambivalence, as something necessary for the social health of the tribe but also something that can be very oppressive. That Pai’s entry into the tribe’s inner circle is precipitated by a turn away from the film’s naturalism and toward the realm of magic realism is dramatically satisfying, but also a bit of a cop-out. It’s not just the shift from the objective to the subjective — it’s one thing to observe the tribe’s beliefs and quite another to be asked to share them — but the way the penultimate scene layers on the portentousness. The pace slows down; the weather darkens and Lisa Gerrard’s weighty sonorities nudge us toward the spirit world. But though my instinct when so confronted is to resist, I think the film has the potential to be a big crowd-pleaser.
Few things are as satisfying as seeing someone overcome nearly insurmountable odds, even if it takes a little mumbo jumbo to lift them over the hump.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.