Somewhat turgid drama, good but would be better on fast-forward.
Set in New Zealand and full of people you've never heard of, you can't help but go into Whale Rider blind. Given the adulation heaped on it I was expecting something special but only received something decent. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it, but it feels like it ought to be half an hour shorter. This is worrying in a film that's only 105 minutes long.
New Zealand's indigenous Maoris received much the same treatment and respect afforded to all natives once Europeans decided they liked the look of their island. Dispossessed of their land and treated with disdain, their culture suffered as a result and the encroaching Westernisation of their lives proves dangerous to their traditional ways. The young men spend their time drinking and riding around in cars like wannabe gangsters or lazing around smoking weed. While this sounds like a gross generalisation, it's pretty much how they're all presented here so who am I to question it?
This is the story of one Maori village and those that live in it. The chief, Koro (Rawiri Partene) is desperately hoping for a worth successor that's going to do more than just preside over their cultures slow slide into decay. He wants a prophet. He wants a man to lead them out of the darkness and into the light. He believes than his son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) is about to give him such a boy, but fate deals it's patented bad hand as the baby boy and the mother die in labour. They are however survived by a baby girl.
Much to Koro's dismay Porourangi names his daughter Paikea, the name of the first legendary Maori chief arriving at New Zealand on the back of a whale. After a bust up, Porourangi leaves Paikea to be raised by Koro while he hawks his art around Europe. This is sort of skipped over in a few second so it's difficult to get specifics, but on his return Porurangi is presented in a sympathetic light so I suppose the intention wasn't to have the audience hate Porourangi for dereliction of his fatherly duties and abandoning his child, but written down in stark black & white that's exactly what he does.
It looks like Koro may resent Paikea, or Pai to her friends for 'killing' her brother, but this does not come to pass as the story picks up the narrative 12 years later, with Pai now a strong willed, intelligent and inquisitive young lass fairly happy with life under the care of Koro and her grandmother Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton). Dark clouds only start to appear over the horizon once Porourangi returns from Europe and Koro expresses his disapproval of his chosen lifestyle, feeling betrayed that he will not be provided with the heir he is expecting.
Koro gathers all the first born sons in the village and starts teaching them the traditions of the Maori to pass the mantle of chief to the strongest lad. Despite their general apathy for the whole process the boys attend, but Koro bans the one child who's really interested in this from attending, Pai. She may well have all of the necessary qualities in a chief but she just doesn't have the balls for it, in a physical sense if not mentally. Despite being public kicked out by Koro she still hangs around the school, trying to overhear the various chants and traditional stories.
It's a 'one woman's struggle' tale at heart, as Pia not only learns the ways of chief hood quicker and better than any of the boys and has to struggle with Koro's stonewall refusal to accept her as a valid candidate. Koro comes across as prejudiced fool because of this, but you can appreciate on some level the years and layers of tradition that he is trying desperately to uphold even at the expense of relationships with his family. Koro's unique worldview stops him from sliding into a generic 'evil' character which is a worthwhile endeavour, although he's ultimately proved wrong as all the boys fail his final test, with Pia succeeding later, although Koro does not find out about this until the film's conclusion.
'Child actor' is a phrase almost guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of most people who've ever seen Home Alone, but Keisha Castle-Hughes is a revelation. Her emotional breakdown during a speech dedicated to (and about) her grandfather who hadn't turned up is genuinely moving, yet at the same time her dogged determination to complete the speech show such strength, grit and sheer depth of character that it's difficult to imagine anyone making a better job of it than she has.
The rest of the acting performances are reasonable too, but only Pia, Koro and to an extent Nanny Flowers are given anything significant to do. Certainly Rawiri Paratene provides a strong character for Pia to rail against but perhaps does it too well, it felt as though he should get some measure of punishment for being horrid to Pia continually. Of course, this is one of the films selling points - it features precious few clich?s in a genre that is generally full of them. Vicky Haughton is given more to do later in the film as a sympathetic ear for Pai as well as the only character that can effectively berate Koro.
As a 'coming-of-age' drama it's about as good an example as you'll find, and it has a few minor niggles that wouldn't hurt it too badly if it weren't for the one big niggle - it feels so slow. The pacing from director Niki Caro could be described at best as methodical, and in fairness you wouldn't expect this to tear along through car chases to an explosive finale. Yet it seems to linger too long on several events and crisis's that could be dealt with more efficiently, and too me it gave the film a strange, stretched out feeling. It seems at points to try to comment on the Western erosion of the Maori culture but never says anything more definite that a glare or barbed comment from Koro. Perhaps a little more emphasis on this might have given it the breadth to make it special.
I've tried desperately to like this more. It is in pretty much every respect a good, worthy film that's deserving of your attention, but I found myself occasionally thinking it to be a bit too dull in places. Perhaps it's the mood I was in, but I couldn't get into it the way most critics seem to have. Still, in terms of the self-discovery, coming-of-age type film it's infinitely preferable to Crossroads.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Rawiri Paratene (Koro)
Vicky Haughton (Nanny Flowers)
Cliff Curtis (Porourangi)