If movie studios ever wanted to study what makes an audience fall hopelessly in love with a movie - a study I doubt they would undertake because being enraptured cannot be quantifed, re-created, and spit out with hard-sell marketing - they could do worse than attend a screening of Whale Rider.
It arrives in Toledo trailing many audience awards from the film festival circuit, including Sundance, Toronto, and San Francisco. And while nonfestival audiences have long been burned by movies that arrive with hype and hosannas, here is an example of hype fulfilled.
Whale Rider has the power of myth, and becomes the kind of film people tell their friends to see. I've seen it twice. Both times, I looked around at audience members' faces, and they were engaged and dazzled. Near the end, they batted at tears. But tears are earned. Director Niki Caro's movie, in the best possible way, feels like live-action Disney, if Disney were weightier, more lyrical, less about jive-talking llamas.
Caro finds a melancholy air early, plopping you comfortably between reality and a dream land. It tells the story of a young girl driven to become a tribal leader but constantly thwarted by her crusty grandfather. The simplicity of that tale, based on a 1,000-year-old New Zealand legend, gives it the timeless feel of a fairy tale. If you've long complained about the dearth of intelligent movies for your smart kid, don't miss Whale Rider. (Yes, it's in English.)
A quick note about the PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America: The board based its rating on “brief language” and “a momentary drug reference,” which is not only hardly worth a PG-13, I can't remember either of these offenses. And you'd be too wrapped up to notice anyway.
Taking place among a poor seaside community on the north coast, Whale Rider's story begins with a hushed voice-over by Pai, our 12-year-old heroine. We watch a woman give birth. Her husband weeps, and Pai explains: Legend says her Maori tribe came to New Zealand on the backs of whales, and for generations, the leader has been determined by lineage. Pai's father was next in line. But he didn't want to be the leader. So the job fell to offspring. The wife died giving birth to Pai and her twin brother - “but he died,” Pai says. “And I didn't.”
Pai grows up loved by her grandfather, but dismissed: The grandfather wants a boy to follow the Maori tradition, as simple as that, and refuses to see beyond her gender. Caro keeps the filmmaking simple: The grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) rounds up the firstborn boys and begins training them to chant and wield a fighting stick. But a slow westernization beckons. In one wrenching scene so downplayed as to almost not register, a father brings his son to the grandfather's practice, watches with pride for a few minutes, then tells his son to be good, climbs in a car, and speeds away with his mates.
Meanwhile, Pai trains herself. Played in an Oscar-worthy performance by newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes, she has a link to the ocean and whales and her tribe's history that she can't explain. And her grandfather won't acknowledge. Castle-Hughes is never cutesy, or moribund: She doesn't overdo it and she doesn't settle back on tears. She squares her chin, and carries a soulful, polite air that makes her struggle even more heartbreaking.
What separates this from other “spunky girl/boy overcomes tradition/adversity” movies like Bend It Like Beckham or Billy Elliot is the filmmaking backs it up and refuses to get sentimental or jokey, or go for the easy emotion. Caro lets the tale tell itself. The problem with a lot of sentimental movies is they're undemanding and lazy. They make a shortcut connection to some good cry experienced in another movie; they flatter your tear ducts without taking time to lay the foundation for genuine emotion. Whale Rider connects with something more elemental: Your sense of wonder. Then your heart falls in line.