Whale Rider is a neat little movie about cultural revival, and the personal sacrifices that people have to make to account for it. The movie presents us with a paradox: sometimes, the revival of history and tradition requires a jolt from new, unpopular, progressive, and even dangerous ideas. It was this dichotomy of looking towards the future in order to preserve the past that held me captive thoughout the film.
The story is quite simple. The Maori tribe of New Zealand expects their leader’s grandson to lead them out of their time of cultural crisis according to legend. However, the boy dies at childbirth, but his twin sister survives. The movie details the girl’s struggle to prove herself to a very conservative, aging leader (her grandfather!) who holds her personally responsible for her brother’s death and the tribe’s demise.
It sounds a little cheesy, but the performances are quite commendable. Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays the little girl, is surprisingly sincere and versatile as an actress. (She’s like 10 years old!) Plus, the woman who plays the grandmother in the film is perfect as the grandfather-leader’s foil. She is emotionally and spiritually healthy as the loving woman behind the scenes, while he is (ironically enough) the bitter unbeliever who has lost control over his tribe, his culture, and his own identity. Indeed, sometimes strength comes from the lowest ranks.
This movie has been described as a “crowd pleaser” by many critics, and surely it is that. However, it is also something more. It is a testament to the power of people to redeem themselves through sheer will. And what is will if not the most fundamental aspect of faith?
I’d give Niki Caro’s Whale Rider a B+.
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