Directed by Niki Caro, starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa and Mana Taumaunu.
This story of a Maori community might look very familiar to Irish eyes. 'Whale Rider' is a tale of male obstinacy and the inferior position of women in a traditional society, themes that have previously been explored in classic Irish dramas. Combine this with New Zealand's lush green hills and long, bleak strands and it's hard to avoid a sense of déjà vu.
The story centres on Pai (Castle-Hughes), destined since her father left to become the chief of her community. The snag is, she's a girl, barred by ancient custom from becoming the leader. Her traditionalist grandfather Koro (a flinty-eyed Paratene) insists that she cannot be educated in the ways of the tribe's menfolk. Her bravery, vision and persistence prove more formidable than Koro presumes.
As a story of a family in crisis, 'Whale Rider' is authentic and involving. The fecklessness of the young generation and the rigidity of the tribal patriarch are vividly drawn, and Paratene's impassive style suits his role as the patriarch perfectly. Castle-Hughes is brilliant as young Pai, embodying the essence of old wisdom and determination in a young body.
With several memorable set-pieces and a compelling story, 'Whale Rider' could have been a marvellous film. Unfortunately it is spoiled by a tendency towards television, with too much focus on internecine familial strife. The visual side of the film could also have been stronger, opting neither for impressive grittiness or rural splendour, but somewhere awkward and in-between. The acting is generally strong, though a few roles are painfully miscast, in particular Vicky Haughton as Nanny Flowers.
Often moving, occasionally dull, this worthwhile film takes itself a little too seriously for comfort.