Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Whale Watching: Discovering “Whale Rider”

Flying back from a seaside vacation, I found myself watching a film that made a major splash in 2002: Whale Rider.  This Germany/New Zealand co-production, filmed in the seaside town where the source novel is set, depicts Maori life in a way that is respectful and heartfelt. Yes, of course this film—like so many dealing with native cultures—can be deemed inspirational, but there’s no sense here of a quaint neverneverland where problems are magically solved because everyone’s heart is pure. Whale Rider feels very much of the present day, and what magic there is evolves out of the characters’ deep desire to serve their ancient community.

 Whale Rider begins with an earthly tragedy. As a female voice narrates the proud history of the Maoris in New Zealand, we see a woman in labor in a modern hospital. She’s carrying twins, but the male child dies at birth, taking his mother with him. The twice-bereaved father-to-be, shaken to his core, departs the community, leaving his infant daughter, Pai, to be raised by her grandparents.

 Flash forward 12 years. Pai is a smart, inquisitive girl deeply invested in her native culture. But though she shares a strong bond with her grandfather, known as Koro, he feels obligated to bar her from the deepest traditions of their tribe. Koro is revered as a local spiritual leader, one steeped in the old ways, but now he’s seeking a worthy successor. The dead grandson was to fill this role, but a girl-child can’t be trusted to step into the position. You can easily figure out what happens: despite his efforts to train the boys of the community, they all fall short. (When there’s a key diving challenge meant to establish a future leader, one backs out because he’s got a cold, while another can’t even swim.) Meanwhile, Pai, whose love of the community is so great that she gives up a chance to join her father in Europe, is severely scolded when she tries on her own to pick up the traditional Maori skills. But of course when the chips are down she comes through brilliantly, and the film ends in reconciliation and victory.

 One great achievement of Nicki Caro’s direction is that it never seems merely sentimental. The ending is triumphant, but it’s not Disney-style happily-ever-after. Pai’s grandfather, played by New Zealand treasure Rawiri Paratene, is a particularly complex character, both lovable and occasionally ruthless. His interactions with young lead actress Keisha Castle-Hughes are  sometimes endearing, sometimes disturbing, always of interest. Behind him is Vicky Haughton as his wife, Pai’s grandmother, who at first seems mild but has her own sort of quiet strength. There are other strong characterizations as well, notably Pai’s tortured father, who skips out of his parents’ world to find himself as a visual artist in Germany, and also her ingratiating good-time uncle who turns out to have surprising skills of his own.

 But the success of this film stands or falls on its young lead actress. The story goes that Keisha Castle-Hughes, daughter of a Maori mother and an Anglo father, had never acted before. She went directly from an Auckland classroom to a role that required her to be strong, sensitive, and always convincing. So impressive is she that, among many other honors, she was the then-youngest female to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Today she crusades for Greenpeace and continues to act (see Season 5 of Game of Thrones) and has had a complicated romantic life, bearing her first child at age 16.  Stardom doesn’t always imply good sense.


No comments:

Post a Comment