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flick pick | Whale Rider 2002
Directed by: Niki Caro
Written by: Sir Witi Ihimaera (novel), Niki Caro
Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton
Language: English
Look for it at the video store under: comedy
Watch it when you’re in the mood for something: feel-good
The critic says: ½/ 5 the rating system explained
Fun factor: /5 

Plot synopsis 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 grandfather's respect.

Review 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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