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In a small Maori
village in New Zealand, legend tells of Paikea, who arrived on the back
of a whale to found their tribe. Since those days, the first-born son in
Paikea's line of direct descendents has always become chieftain. The
only child in the current line, however, is a girl. On the day Pai was
born, she lost both her mother and her twin brother; her heartbroken
artist father soon left New Zealand to make a new life for himself in
Europe, leaving Pai in the care of her grandmother, Nanny Flowers, and
grandfather, Koro, village chieftain. Her grandparents love her dearly,
but Koro is stuck in the old ways of thinking, and cannot see that the
future of their village might lie in the hands of a girl. As he grows
older and watches his people's traditions slowly being taken-over by
modern Western culture, he worries increasingly about what will happen
to his people. He begins searching for a successor amongst the young
boys in the village, setting up a school in which he'll show them all
the ways of their ancestors, and wait for a clear leader to emerge.
Smart, strong Pai can't help but feel left out and hurt, as her
grandfather refuses to see what's in front of him: a natural leader who
feels the weight of her people and the wisdom of her ancestors on her
small shoulders, as well as a young girl who just wants her
I'm not a particularly weepy sort of girl. But there are two kinds of
stories that are pretty much guaranteed to get me tearing up despite
myself: anything involving the strength of family bonds, and any tale of
girls asserting themselves when they're not supposed to. Yes, I'm a
sucker for girl power. So Whale Rider pretty much gets me feeling
all verklempt just thinking about it. But I'm a stubborn sort, and there
are plenty an overly dramatic, manipulatively feel-good flicks in which
I've refused to let those tears out. Whale Rider is not that kind
of cliché-ridden drivel. The movie benefits from a laidback, quiet tone
that keeps the potential melodrama fairly well in check; director Niki
Caro mostly chooses to let the emotions speak for themselves, instead of
relying on cheesy close-ups and cheesier music to fake the feeling. But
the biggest part of the credit goes to young star Keisha Castle-Hughes,
who gives Pai exactly the right balance of stubborn feistiness,
emotional vulnerability, precocious wisdom and child-like naivete. You
get the distinct feeling she's conflicted about wanting to stand up for
herself -- which of course makes perfect sense, given the family and
culture in which she's grown up. And though it's heart-breaking, it also
makes Pai that much more believable, so that when she finally does make
her voice heard, you can feel a-okay about letting those tears roll.—reviewed
by Yee-Fan Sun
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