An instant classic when it came out in 2003, Whale Rider is the kind of film that grabs your heart and doesn’t let go, and then stays with you forever. Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, it’s a simple tale about a young Maori girl being raised by her grandparents in a remote village on the coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Although set in contemporary times, the village still clings to it’s age-old indigenous rites and social hierarchies. The girl, called Pai, is played with gripping emotional transparency by Keisha Castle-Hughes, a completely unknown non-actor. The reason Pai’s life is tinged with sadness and longing? On the day of her birth, not only did her mother die in labor but also her twin, a brother. According to legend, the original tribe’s founder, Paikea, landed on the shores of the island riding on the back of a gigantic whale. Ever since, each successive tribal leader is designated before birth, is given the name Paikea, and must be male. All hopes were dashed the day Pai’s twin brother died. Her father (played by the appealing actor, Cliff Curtis) cannot bear the burden of raising his daughter alone, and after angering his own father (a venerated town elder) by insisting on naming her Paikea, he takes off for Paris, coming home only sporadically for visits, and the stern grandfather will only call her Pai.
As the grandfather desperately searches among the boys of the village to be the next tribal leader, he stubbornly refuses to even consider Pai, despite her natural and spiritual affinity for the role. Until something happens that literally draws the entire village onto the shores of the ocean, forcing them to look their legend straight in the eye and recast their destiny forever.
Beautifully written and directed by Niki Caro, Whale Rider was a huge hit among audiences and critics alike, garnering an Academy Award nomination for its young breakout star, Keisha Castle-Hughes (youngest ever nomination in Best Actress category). An interesting side-bar: Castle-Hughes, now a twentysomething actress, in 2015 joined the blockbuster series, Game of Thrones, where she played a warrior-type character. But she will be forever known for her luminous performance in Whale Rider, a movie that is sure to remain a favorite for generations to come. In what many people consider a sacred weekend, when families are getting together to enjoy a peaceful moment away from the clatter and din of the world’s problems, this is the kind of film that promotes inclusion and harmony, with Nature and with each other. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Whale Rider is presently streaming on Netflix.
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YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtZC5OOxoAQ