Whale Rider

July, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Niki Caro

Starring:Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, and Cliff Curtis

Have you ever known someone that you can admire, for a reason or reasons you can articulate--but whom you never really like? There's something almost perverse in that reaction, but it happens to me a couple of times a year when I see a widely praised movie that just doesn't captivate me the way I'd been told it would. Wonderful ingredients, solid recipe, but disappointing outcome; that's my reaction to this earnest, well-intentioned fable from New Zealand about the loss and reclamation of one's cultural roots written and directed by Niki Caro from a novel by Witi Ihimaera.

Rider traces the life of a young Maori girl named Pai, (played by newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes) as she struggles to convince the grandfather who's raised her that she can rightfully claim the right to lead her clan in recovering its traditional strength and dignity. The grandfather, (played with angry honesty by veteran actor Rawiri Paratene) rebuffs his lively and attractive heir on the grounds of gender; the tribe has never before been lead by a woman much less a young girl, and he sees her attempts at qualifying for leadership as not only insulting tribal norms, but also potentially causing a final destruction of the group's waning sense of community that he's tried so hard to preserve during his tenure as chief. (His first choice for the demanding job of successor was his oldest son, who also happens to be Pai's father; but he left home after losing Pai's mother in childbirth, moving to Europe to pursue his talents as an artist, and taking a German woman as his new wife.) Reluctantly abandoning that option, Pai’s grandfather begins a talent search among the boys of Pai's age who react to his rigorous indoctrination and confrontational testing with a mixture of awe and amusement. 

Pai persists; training in secret with her uncle, (and receiving surreptitious encouragement from her grandmother) Pai quietly challenges her grandfather's belief that only males can assume positions of leadership. Only a crisis facing a herd of beached whales allows her the opportunity to demonstrate to a loving but narrow-minded grandfather that she is capable of accomplishing the objectives he has set for the clan.

Ms. Castle-Hughes is outstanding as the determined Pai, and Paratene manages to make his basically unattractive grandfather both credible and worthy of respect in a very demanding role, but the film preaches so relentlessly that these solid performances get buried under a directorial point of view that lacks credibility, and the attempt at a mystical resolution of the inter-generational conflict becomes as turgid as the helpless whales. As for tempo--Caro is so respectful of her characters and so mesmerized by the profundity of her message that she forces the audience to wallow in every aspect of her film; the result is a movie which inches forward more slowly than cross-town Manhattan traffic at rush-hour. All this is delivered with a near-lethal sincerity -- ponderously solemn, stolidly paced, and coupled with a mantra of gender correctness that's slathered over every motivation; all reminiscent of the political correctness that sank Dances With Wolves.  While Caro strives for a balanced look at the members of this extended clan, (can they all really be so quietly wholesome?) sanctimonious piety, rather than sharp observation suffuses her production. 

In 1994, the disintegration of Maori culture was brilliantly captured in a film entitled Once Were Warriors. That movie's unflinching examination of the pressures on family ties, ethnic identity and the crippling listlessness that accompanies a crushed culture haunted audiences around the globe, and compared quite favorably with a similar examination of the devastation of contemporary Sioux life in the book On The Rez. Whale Rider may make its viewers feel good for a few minutes after the final credits roll, but this white-bread study of indigenous culture has a Hollywood dream-factory mentality oozing from every frame. The result is a sincere but leaden tale that manages to dull the senses as it plucks at the heart-strings; watching this one is like being pummeled to death with marshmallows.

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