Legend and leader meet, and there the screen should go dark. But it doesn’t. 


An Illusion review by Joan Ellis

Please don’t miss “Whale Rider.”  A wonderful cast of mostly non-professionals tells the story of the Whangara people of New Zealand’s east coast, a tribe whose chief is trying to preserve for his people a heritage of a thousand years.  Battling the odds of modern society, he is becoming frustrated and embittered. 

                Legend says the Whangara have in common one ancestor – Paikea – who came from far away on the back of a whale.  From that time forward the first-born son of the Whangara chief has always been chosen as the new leader.  This movie steps into that legend as it is unfolding for Koro, the current chief (Rawiri Paratene).  When Koro’s twin grandchildren are born, the boy dies; the girl lives.  The grandmother (Muzzi Loffredo) presses her husband to give the girl the name of the legendary leader, Pai.  Later Pai says, “Everybody was waiting for the first-born boy, but he died and I didn’t.”  This young girl will defy centuries of tradition. 

                Pai, played by first timer Keisha Castle-Hughes, has the sense of her destiny in her bones.  As we watch her reach for the tools of the leadership while soaking up her grandfather’s dismissals – “The girl is of no use to me” – we are drawn deeply into the movie by the extraordinary ability of the young actress who plays the part.  Sorrowful and vulnerable, primal and defiant, Pai battles the obstacles and finds safe haven with her grandmother – whose beautiful, wise, old face offers both reassurance and encouragement.   

                As she grew to the age of eleven, Pai was surrounded by love.  Even her resolute grandfather adores her; he simply cannot imagine accepting her as chief of his people even though she alone is now the obvious choice.  Nothing he says diminishes her determination to break the rules of her society in order to earn the right to become the chief of the Whangara.  She is tempted, for a day, to return to her father who left the country after his wife’s death, but the pull to lead her people is too powerful. 

                In a marvelous set of scenes that should have been the ending, a pod of whales is beached, and saving them becomes the spiritual and physical challenge for this generation.  Tender hands keep the whales alive while waiting for the tide to change, and among these, little Pai is the one with the heritage knit into her being.  Legend and leader meet, and there the screen should go dark. 

But it doesn’t.  A bit of Hollywood fairy dust has blown to New Zealand.  Unable to resist emphasizing a perfect ending, the filmmakers indulge themselves in a victory lap.  This kind of movie doesn’t need a victory lap.   Just close your eyes and savor what you have already seen:  the fine directing and writing by Niki Caro, the nearly flawless acting, the haunting mood of the photography, and the sweet story of a little girl who knew her destiny. 

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