NOTE: This review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk (or after you’ve seen the movie).
A Maori myth says that Paikea was the first man to arrive on the shores of New Zealand; he came on the back of a whale. Paikea’s blood flows down through the ancestral line to Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), an 11-year-old girl who wants to fulfill the destiny of her ancestors. Pai’s grandfather says girls can’t be chiefs, but the Maori gods seem to have some new ideas.
Although the view of New Zealand’s people, places, and atmosphere is refreshing, the mechanical, soulless story is annoying and dull.
PG-13 for language, drugs, disturbing images
The Gospel According to St. Matthew, another humorless, divinely-chosen prophet walks on celluloid.
Pai’s mother and twin brother die during the delivery. Her grief-stricken father (Cliff Curtis) gives her the traditional name reserved first sons, against the wishes of his own father (Rawiri Paratene), who is a teacher of the old ways.
Pai is raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather Koro loves her, but coldly, and with an air of disappointment, no doubt reinforced every time he has to say her name. Grandmother (Vicky Haughton) is more forbearing and softens the impact.
Pai is an intense, serious young lady. She badly wants to fulfill the destiny her name carries with it. In fact, Castle-Hughes’ performance reminded me of Enrique Irazoqui, who played Jesus in The Gospel Accrding to St. Matthew. Both were first-time actors, playing a humorless, divinely-chosen mythical figure with father issues.
Grandfather kicks Pai out of his “old ways” class, but luckily her uncle took the class, and he is willing to teach Pai all she needs to know. Of course, when Koro finds out, he becomes even angrier. His whole family seems to be conspiring against him and against the old traditions.
NOTE: Spoilers ahead. The family conflict keeps chafing and scratching until it seems there can be no good outcome. The movie climaxes with a technically excellent scene of beached whales, key symbols in Maori mythology. For Pai, the beachings are a form of punishment; she asked the whales to help her with her grandfather, and this is their answer. For Koro they are the last hopeless sign of a world that has lost all respect for tradition.
Unless you’ve seen Once Were Warriors, you probably haven’t seen a movie about Maoris. That alone may entice you to your local art house theater. If not, surely the New Zealand scenery will fill some seats.
For my money, the best thing about Whale Rider is the breakout performance by Castle-Hughes. She belts her lines with confidence, but she can also deliver a teary-eyed speech written to appease her bitter grandfather, who doesn’t even show up to hear it.
And yet none of these qualities saved the movie from writer/director Niki Caro, who expects sympathy and cooperation from her audience without earning it or compelling it.
There are moments of bad writing and bad acting. An early fight between Koro and his son over naming Pai is pure daytime soap. The “bad seeds” are written in movie shorthand: big black car, leather clothes. Caro’s writing is naive, and not in a good way. In fact, she seems blind to the underlying cruelty in the story.
The unfortunate friction between Koro and Pai is basically about whose interpretation of God (or tradition, or The Ancestors) is right. It’s a religious war writ small. The conflict so colors their relationship that there’s hardly anything left for grandfather and granddaughter. Pai is determined to earn her name, and Koro is determined that she will not. This is a tragedy, but Caro paints it as a melodrama, and too many American critics only see the pretty, quaint New Zealanders.
NOTE: Spoilers ahead. This time I mean it. They key scene of the film has Pai riding the largest beached whale back into the sea. Caro wants us to be stirred and moved by the image from myth coming to life. But she doesn’t seem to remember that Pai is committing suicide because her grandfather has used tradition as a tool of emotional abuse. This is not an uplifting moment; this is child abuse driven by zealotry.
And yet, after the horror, the movie rescues Pai. She is not dead after all, and she and her grandfather eventually row off into the sunset together.
But Koro hasn’t learned a thing; he has only changed his mind because Pai rode the whale and fulfilled a prophecy. His change came from the divine, not from love for his granddaughter. Their reunion at the end, then, is actually a little unnerving.
A fellow critic politely told me that I’ve misinterpreted Whale Rider, And if you asked director Caro, she’d no doubt say the same. I say that Caro failed in telling the story. She never won me over. She assumes audiences will be sympathetic to her cause (and many will), but she never compels it, and the success of the movie requires it.