Hidden Gems: Whale Rider
By Kyle Lee
March 20, 2019
2002’s Whale Rider was a movie that hit me like a ton of bricks when I first watched it. It’s the touching story of Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a 12 year old girl living on the coast of New Zealand with her grandparents. Her community is led by her strict grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), who is searching for the next generation of leader, as Pai’s grieving father left the country after the death of his wife and Pai’s twin brother in childbirth. Paikea is obviously the best candidate to lead them going forward, but as Koro keeps telling her, girls can’t be the leader. It has to be a boy.
We’re first dropped into the story as Pai narrates her birth, including the death of her brother, who was destined to be the leader they needed. Her father, Porourangi (the great Cliff Curtis, playing his native Maori heritage for once instead of the Latinos or Middle Easterners that he frequently plays in Hollywood) named her Paikea, after the legend of the great leader that traveled from Hawaii to New Zealand on the back of a whale. Koro tells his son not to name her that, that’s a boy’s name and a leader’s name, but Porourangi insists. We then jump to 12 year old Pai and her lifelong struggle to connect to her grandpa who loves her but resents that she isn’t the boy he wanted to lead his community after he’s gone. Pai is comforted by her grandma Nanny (Vicky Haughton), but Pai is a sensitive kid who takes in all of her grandpa’s criticism and feels inadequate that she’s a girl. Koro decides to round up the boys in the community, teach them how to be men, and see which one is the best leader. Koro teaches them history, stick fighting, haka, and other traditions. The results are a mixed bag, at best.
We know from movie conventions that Pai will rise to lead the community and her grandpa will begrudgingly accept her even though she’s a girl. The pleasure of this movie isn’t in the surprises of the plot, but in the many details added to flesh it out. When Pai is turned away from the leadership classes and wants to learn stick fighting, she turns to her uncle, Rawiri (Grant Roa), who was a champion stick fighter in his youth but has degenerated into overeating and smoking pot with his girlfriend Shilo (Rachel House, who I was delighted to see turn up recently in fellow New Zealander Taika Waititi’s movie Thor: Ragnarok, as Jeff Goldblum’s irritable bodyguard). So Rawiri starts teaching Pai, and she learns faster than any of the boys. Meanwhile Rawiri starts exercising again, stepping up and finding himself after being spiritually awakened by helping teach Pai. You can see that Pai is unintentionally leading, just by being herself, inspiring those close to her to be better versions of themselves. The girl is a natural leader, but the one person who needs to see it is the one that doesn’t. Koro is too stuck in the old ways, the traditions. Those ways are dying because Koro is refusing to adapt.
All of this is handled so beautifully by writer/director Niki Caro. She handles her young actors very well, allowing some of the awkwardness of youth to shine through but not pushing it. The native traditions are all shown respectfully, affectionately. From the stories to the greetings to the respect shown to elders and the accompanying rebelliousness of the youth, so many aspects I recognize from our Native American culture here in the US are mirrored in this native culture of the Maori in New Zealand.
There are also gorgeously lyrical cutaways to whales swimming in the ocean throughout the movie. When I first watched it, I thought that these were just helping set a dreamy mood, but on my last watch-through I felt more like the whales were talking to Pai as she faced hard times in her life. At one point her father wants to take her back with him to Germany, where he’s living with his girlfriend, but as they’re leaving Pai stares off into the ocean and Caro cuts to the whales. You really get the sense that Pai is connected to this place, the whales are telling her not to leave. They need her. This place needs her. It adds a level of the almost supernatural to this story, which is again very connected to various native cultures, which have always been more accepting of the unexplainable in their stories.
Although not really similar, Whale Rider kept coming to my mind when watching Disney’s Moana a couple of years ago. Both are the stories of a young island girl learning her internal power and ultimately using it to lead her people. Of course, Moana is set in a fantasy world of myth and the islanders wear leis and hula skirts and all that kind of stereotypical stuff, while Whale Rider is set in modern times. Whale Rider deals with the gender bias of the native traditions, while Moana kind of side steps them as everyone just accepts that Moana will be chief and are fine with it. Both are ultimately great movies, I think, in different ways. They go different places but they’re almost like sister movies. Moana was definitely influenced by Whale Rider. It then strikes me that Niki Caro’s upcoming movie is next year’s live-action big budget Mulan remake for Disney. They’ve clearly taken notice of her work here in the story of a strong young girl.
The actors are all top notch here, headlined by Rawiri Paratene’s rigid Koro, whom we never doubt loves Pai, but he’s so stuck in his ways, so blind to her specialness, that he can’t see that his answer is right in front of him. He frustrates us in the audience, and Pai too, but she loves him anyway. Our lead, Keisha Castle-Hughes was, for a time, the youngest woman ever nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars, and she wholly deserved it for her sensitive, vulnerable, unaffected work here. In the best scene in the movie, a speech Pai gives in tribute to her grandfather, Castle-Hughes is heartbreaking. It’s a scene that has never failed to make me cry like a baby, and the biggest reason why is her brilliant performance.
Lastly, a quick word about the misleading PG-13 rating for the movie. Why was this wholesome family movie rated PG-13, you might ask? Bad language? Koro says the word “dick” twice. That’s it. Violence? There’s none. Sex? None. So why was it rated PG-13? Because when Pai goes to her uncle for help with stick fighting, we see a bag of weed and a pipe lying on his chest. We don’t see him smoke, we know that he did smoke, but it’s never given any dialog, any emphasis in any way, it’s just a thing sitting there. Boom, PG-13. It’s one of the most egregious ratings in the history of the MPAA that this perfect little Hidden Gem of a family movie was given a PG-13 rating. Please seek this movie out and watch with your family. I hope you love it as much as I do.