- Directed by Niki Caro
- Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, and Vicky Haughton
- Written by Niki Caro
- Rated PG-13
- 101 mins.
- (US) 29 August 2003
A young Maori girl who lives with her grandparents after the tragedy of her birth, in which her mother and twin brother died, made her father unable to stay and care for her, must prove to her grandfather that she is the rightful future chief of their people in spite of a centuries long tradition of male leaders. Named after their legendary ancestor, Paikea, Pai knows she is destined to lead her people, and yet their community and her grandfather, who is her favorite person in the world, are bound by tradition to deny her what she knows is her rightful place.
How’s the Story?
This story is amazing. I love the look into the culture of this community, and the beliefs of these Maori people, and most of all the story of a young girl trying to prove her place in a patriarchal society. It’s something so beautifully told, because there are just so many issues touched on in this film. It isn’t some trope-laden story about a girl being held back by society. This film is a carefully nuanced tale about family and love and there is no ‘villain’, there are just struggles for every single character, and at the center of it is this little girl who is eleven years old and just wants to do the right thing for herself and her people.
It’s just a beautiful story that will rip your heart out and yet it’s never ‘heavy’ or depressing. It’s a story full of hope and reality, and it’s amazing.
How’s the Acting?
Dear God, Keisha Castle-Hughes delivers the best child acting performance I’ve EVER seen. Like, everybody knows I think Kirsten Dunst in Interview is the best child performance ever, but honestly, this one is better than that. This little girl has this amazing quality where she seems so wise and beyond her years, and yet it doesn’t feel like an adult performance, she still has that very obvious ‘child’ side to her. She delivers this stoic vulnerability that I don’t think most adults could ever pull off, she’s just THAT good.
There’s this one scene where Pai has just had her heart broken by her grandfather, who is the person she looks up to most in the world, and she goes outside and sits in this boat that’s a symbol for her people (long story, won’t bother you with it right now, just watch the film) and her father, who is visiting them, comes out after her. They start talking, and by the end of it her father is the one who is nearly sobbing while she sits there with just a few tears in this moment of stoicism and is the one comforting him even though she’s the child.
There are great performances by so many people, but honestly? You don’t need to know anything about anybody besides this amazing little girl who delivers such an amazing performance she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress.
(And honestly, she should’ve won. The winner that year was Charlize Theron in Monster which is by no means anywhere near as good as Keisha Castle-Hughes as Pai.)
How’s the Writing/Directing?
The writing in this film is so well done. There are so many perfect lines in the script and there are so many choices in how the characters’ arcs go that makes the film what it is. This can also be down to direction as well. There are scenes where it would be so easy for the director to make it go big, but instead it went small. Since the director and writer are the same, I can really say that this person meant for it to be exactly how it is, and it’s so good.
There’s this wonderful moment that stands out in the writing for me where Pai’s grandmother walks in while she’s in the bathtub and sits down to wash her hair for her since Pai has been hurt by her grandfather’s rejection, and when her grandmother is talking to her and trying to remind her that her grandfather isn’t always right, and that Pai should believe in herself, the whole time Pai is very stoic and quiet and seems so heartbroken but in this reserved way. And then she says this one line that I’ll never forget, and that is, “It’s not his fault I’m a girl.”
It’s so powerful and just crushing, because as I mentioned before, this film is written in a way that there is no villain. We understand that Koro, her grandfather, loves her more than anything in the whole world. Even when he’s angry at her, he loves this child more than anything. However, he’s the elder in the community, he’s responsible for their people’s well-being, and traditions are not something you challenge. He loves Paikea, but he has the responsibility to do what’s best for their people, and it’s not easy for him to choose everybody else over his granddaughter. And when Pai says that line, you understand that this little girl gets it.
There are obviously so many other things in this film that are just wonderful, but this film manages to impress upon the audience such an overwhelmingly heavy thing to understand in just seven little words from the mouth of a child, and it’s just absolutely masterful.
How’s the Cinematography?
This film is absolutely beautifully shot. There are these beautiful scenes of the island, and visually stunning landscape shots, but there are also these shots inside houses that make you really feel like you’re in someone’s home. It doesn’t feel like a film set, it feels real. I feel like I’m actually in a home, and honestly that’s such a small thing to think about, but for me, that’s a mark of solid cinematography.
There are also these very impressive shots in water and this wonderful scene involving whales. I won’t spoil it for those of you who want to see the film, but the way they manage it all feels so organic and impressive. This is just a beautifully shot film and I cannot express that enough.
Is It Worth Watching?
Whale Rider is one of my favorite films of all time. I would put this in my top 20 films everybody should ever see, top 10 films with a child protagonist, top 10 non-American films, and it’s in my top 5 feminist films. The story this film tells is something so unique to this culture and this community, and yet the themes are something that are universal.
The themes of grandparents as parents, the themes of personal tragedy, the themes of societal expectations, the themes of family vs duty, the themes of a child trying to prove their worth, there are just so many universal things in this film that everybody can feel. This film has so much emotion, so much love, so much pain, and so much hope. It’s a film that will make anybody cry at least once, and yet it’s not heavy and depressing. It’s a film about life and about family and about community, and I cannot express in words how phenomenal every single part of this film is.
Keisha Castle-Hughes delivers a performance that is unparalleled, Paikea is one of the most fascinating child characters I’ve ever seen, this film feels so organic and human, and I don’t think there is a more universally enjoyable film that I have seen.
This film is on Netflix (US), and if you haven’t seen it now, you should go see it immediately, because you need to see this film.
My Rating: 9/10