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Whale Rider

(2003) *** Pg-13
105 min. distributer. Director: Niki Caro. Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Rawinia Clarke.

A powerful and well-acted tale of irrepresible female leadership, Whale Rider retells--for modern times--a Maori legend. Adapted from Witi Ihimaera's novel The Whale Rider, Niki Caro's film capitalizes on lovely scenery and an effervescent new performer, Keisha Castle-Hughes.

Castle-Hughes plays Pai, a twelve-year-old Maori girl cursed with the lingering stigma of her gender. Pai's grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the village chief, despairs upon her birth; only grudgingly, over time, does he come to accept her and share affection, raising her in the absence of her father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis). Koro's imperious presence has worn down the first-born Porourangi--already branded a failure--and driven him away, while his younger brother Rawiri (Grant Roa) lazes in his welcome second-born anonymity. Koro's wife--known as Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton)--plays a peacemaker more sage than her husband the chief.

Koro takes Porourangi's retreat as a sign to resume his search for the successive chief. A series of tests and lessons aggravate the corralled first-born children of the village, prominent among them a boy named Hemi. As gracefully played by Mana Taumaunu, Hemi is nearly a match for Pai. The plot thickens into a pair of linked crises: one involving Pai's fervent wish to reconcile with Koro, the other involving a pod of whales, rendered with surprisingly seamless digital effects.

Shot in the coastal village of Whangara with the cautious cooperation of the fiercely protective Maori there, Whale Rider offers an interesting window to the trappings and rituals of the tribal culture, cleverly using a traditional story as a vehicle to question patriarchy (if not hereditary succession). The magic realism of the story contributes to the film's entrancing mood, mystery complementing reality just as the traditional tale fetchingly meets the present day.

If not for its uniformly excellent cast, this not especially sophisticated film might fairly be branded as the ultimate Afterschool Special. Still, Caro's firm but gentle touch guides the story through some intriguing and certainly emotional currents. The heart and mind of Whale Rider are properly placed, making this a preferable successor to the more conventional girl-power of Bend it Like Beckham.

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