New Zealand Film May Please Crowds, But It Rates High on Cheese Scale
If you want to know what kind of movie Whale Rider is, scan the following list of titles: Amélie, Monsoon Wedding, Y Tu Mamá También, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Bend It Like Beckham. That's right, Whale Rider is an art-house hit to be, a real crowd-pleaser, the kind of film that lands at the Charles Theatre and doesn't depart for months. For some of you, that list probably represents a sampling of recent favorites, films that brought some magic back to your moviegoing experience. For others, some of the aforementioned titles may represent a sampling of recent expectorants, saccharine truffles that take up valuable screen space while, say, the latest Werner Herzog and Claire Denis films pass Baltimore by altogether. This review will attempt to address the concerns of both constituencies.
Whale Rider tells the story of Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a young Maori girl coming of age in modern New Zealand. Pai's mother dies giving birth to her, and while her father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) mourns the loss of his wife, Porourangi's father Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the local Maori community's spiritual leader, bemoans his bloodline's lack of a male heir. Indeed, it initially seems that Koro wants nothing to do with Pai, but the film quickly zips forward a decade, where we find that Porourangi has moved to Germany and become a successful artist, while Koro and Pai have become inseparable.
Things get more complex when Koro decides to start extracurricular classes in which he will school male Maori children in ancient traditions, hoping to find a successor. Intrigued, Pai attempts to join the class, only to be severely rebuked. Undeterred, she continues to explore Maori traditions usually reserved for warrior males; the greater her persistence, the more she earns Koro's hostility. But when several whales are found beached and on the verge of death, Pai takes action that causes Koro to rethink the strict gender roles of their community.
All cynicism aside, anyone who favors sweet material that unabashedly aims for the heart should go see this film. Director Niki Caro has done an admirable job of taking a universal story and using it as a vehicle to transmit some poignant details about modern Maori life. As a point of reference, the most popular Maori film until now was Once Were Warriors (1994), a strong, harsh film that focused on the violence, poverty, and gender inequality of a contemporary Maori community. While it doesn't concern itself with erasing the picture painted by Warriors, Whale Rider certainly seems dedicated to advancing more positive, hopeful reflections on similar themes.
The performances make all the difference in this respect. Much attention has been given to Castle-Hughes (in her film debut), and indeed the just-now-teenaged actress does a remarkable job. If she weren't charismatic and didn't have a handle on the cultural weight of this material, it would flop--and it doesn't. Curtis, who had a breakout supporting role in Warriors and has since become Hollywood's resident ethnic everyman (see Three Kings, Blow, and Training Day for an interesting spectrum of his non-Maori roles), spends much of the film in the background; still, as both a Warriors cast member and a Maori now making it big abroad, his presence holds weight here. But it is Paratene's Koro who quietly dominates Whale Rider, making audiences understand the emotional motivation behind his views even when they seem hurtful, misguided, or outdated. His scenes as a Maori teacher have real punch to them; he channels an energy bigger than himself or this film, and the results are impressive.
But let's not forget the (to be honest, fellow) cynics. If you're still pissed off that Irreversible only stayed a week at the Charles, this is not the film for you. If the last film you liked with a teenaged cast was directed by Harmony Korine or Todd Solondz, forget about it. In fact, here's a handy barometer for the skeptical, revisiting that initial list of Baltimore art-house staples. Exactly where does Whale Rider check in on the cheese spectrum? Well, it rates edgier than Greek Wedding, naturally, and the slight, sappy Beckham, but comes across far fromagier than the subtle, well-executed Y Tu Mamá También and probably even more so than the light but lively Amélie. Where does that leave us? On about the same median plane as Monsoon Wedding: namely, fine, amiably predictable storytelling that holds a little extra interest because it takes our eyes and ears somewhere our pocketbooks might not allow the rest of our body to visit. That's Whale Rider: at best and at worst, a real crowd-pleaser.