“We were waiting for the firstborn of the new generation, for the descendant of the whale rider. For the boy who would be chief.”
This New Zealand coming of age film about a young girl from the Whangara tribe struggling to find her place in this traditionally patriarch society, opens with tragedy. A woman dies giving birth to twins, and only the sister survives. She is the one narrating this event while introducing us to her tribe's culture and saying what a huge disappointment this was for her grandfather who was expecting the first born son to become the tribe chief. Her father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), is heartbroken and against her grandfather's wishes he doesn't assume the responsibility of becoming a leader, deciding to travel abroad instead as an artist. He leaves the girl, Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), in the care of his parents, Koro (Rawiri Paratene) and Nanny (Vicky Haughton). From a very early age, Paikea feels she is destined to become the leader of her tribe, but despite Koro's love for her he refuses to let her participate in the training and search for the new leader. Of course a film about female empowerment like this was directed by a woman, Niki Caro, who also adapted the screenplay from Witi Ihimaera's novel. The story almost has a fairytale quality to it, but it does have a lot to say about sexism and keeping up with past customs in a modern world.
At the time of its release, Whale Rider, was received with a lot of praise from audiences at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals and it also received an Academy Award nomination for Keisha Castle-Hughes' lead performance who at the time was the youngest actress to be nominated in that category. Keisha was given strong material to work with and she is by far the best thing about the movie. Her performance is breathtaking as Paikea as she captures the struggle to find her place in this society that she feels destined to lead. Her relationship with her grandfather is the center of the movie and it was one I had a difficult time believing considering he ignores her for almost the entire film despite her love and belief in him. There is a powerful scene near the end of the film in which she honors him at her school but it didn't move me as much considering I didn't share that same sympathy for Koro. It is however a wonderful scene thanks to Keisha's touching speech and I'm assuming it was the reason why she was nominated.
My greatest complaint is with the pacing of the first half of the film that never managed to engage me. The family dynamics weren't compelling and it took a while to understand why Paikea would want to stay in such an unwelcoming place out of a sense of duty in fulfilling her destiny. I did enjoy the final 20 minutes which were touching and inspirational, but it wasn't enough to save the first 70 minutes and its slow pacing. The only other interesting character in the film is Paikea's uncle who is given little screen time, but his relationship with her seemed like something much more interesting and worth exploring more. I didn't enjoy Whale Rider as much as I had hoped, and I found it to be quite a missed opportunity for such an interesting story.