Whale Rider tells the story of a young girl, Paikea, who lives in New Zealand with a stern grandfather who, apparently, needs to get modern. Every scene tells us this and gives us an opportunity to tsk-tsk his staunch rejection of his granddaughter who he believes, despite her lineage, can’t inherit the leadership of this Maori village because of her gender. She’ll need to convince her grandfather she can lead just as well as the boys can, and she’ll need to do it before the end of the movie.
But just when you think you have the film pegged, its sincerity manages to break through the thin characterizations and age-old plot. Young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes gives Paikea a richly expressive voice, and the turning point is an astonishingly heartfelt speech she delivers at a school program for parents. The soundtrack goes silent and the camera sits at the foot of the stage looking up at her while she talks about her admiration for her grandfather, explaining how she destroyed a long line of chiefs by being born. In everything she does, she balances a challenge of authority with obedience and respect, as if trying to find a way to simultaneously accept both herself and her grandfather’s tradition, rather than rejecting tradition outright, which would’ve been simpler for a movie like this. Castle-Hughes’ grace and beauty on the screen is probably the main reason Whale Rider became a surprise art-house hit last year.
The third act—where all our predictions come true—has a quiet dignity and, although it moves from A to B as expected, how it gets there is surprisingly mysterious. The common ground on which the girl and her grandfather land has more nuance than the setup would seem to allow. The village has a problem that manifests itself physically on its beaches, and we recognize immediately that this is the moment when Paikea must prove herself to her grandfather. But her proof doesn’t involve boat motors, fighting sticks, or feats of skill like we might have guessed. It’s more mystical than that. Destiny quivers in her fingers. She has the option of doing nothing; instead she acts, responding to the call of her ancestors and her village, which she is the link between. In her final voice-over she focuses neither on herself nor her grandfather but on her people and their future, a born leader, through and through.