What children see on television and movie screens rallies the reactionary parent in all of us around a single cause every three years or so and wields enough power to initiate temporary crackdowns on media sex and violence, even in the rubbery world of national politics. What children don’t see on television and in film seems to float around like a scattered afterthought after the passionate cries of concerned parties have subsided. After all, everyone has their own ideas about appropriate programming for children, and if each point from each lobbyist was somehow factored into a concrete directive at the end of the day, the results would read like a Pentagon-issued non-answer.
Fortunately, Whale Rider deals with at least one point in that prospectus of big ideas—the one about other cultures and races—and drags it away from politically correct nit-picking and into the realm of graceful, mature artistic expression. In fact, the film feels so uncalculated in its topical importance and devoted to its gracefully simple story arc that it’s a shame to call it Maori and applaud with an erudite appreciation for otherness, when in fact it’s just a darn good film on its own, and more important for its understanding of family relationships than any exploration of Maori identity. Whale Rider shows us native New Zealanders who resemble people, rather than the Hollywood brand noble savage, and is fairly widely available—a precious combination and a great reason to it to show your kids, especially since a massive pile of related information, stretching from Polynesian legends to Francis Cook to current U.S. Native American policies, begs for some kind of follow-up discussion.
The film’s 12-year-old protagonist, Pai (played with unaffected clarity and dignity by Keisha Castle-Hughes) is the second and perhaps most immediate reason Whale Rider deserves a longer-than-usual drive to that other theater for a screening or two. Writer/director Niki Caro has tidily and efficiently created in Pai the perfect antidote to the warbly, doe-eyed child-protagonist prototype used in Hollywood since Shirley Temple. This girl isn’t a precocious, doted-on doll or a sentimentally rejected orphan, but a muted spot of vitality in an otherwise dying tribal village. In the brief, cool-headed flashback that opens the film, we watch Pai’s mother die in traumatic childbirth. Pai is saved, but her twin brother is lost with her mother, and Pai’s father, Porourangi, leaves the town in grief. Koro, Pai’s grandfather and the village’s leader, expected a male from the birth, as only males are allowed to carry on the title of chief; when Koro’s hopes are dashed, Pai becomes the symbol of his disappointment. Barely in her teens, Pai intuitively cultivates the traits of a leader, but withers under the criticism of her grandfather.
In traditional movie-making rules of the game, this scenario might spill over with emotional pornography and pull an unearned moral of self-empowerment from the soup, but Caro sticks to her subdued guns. Pai gleans any information she can about the traditions of her ancestors from a similarly repressed uncle, but Koro, who decides to school the local boys in the old ways and find a new chief among them, publicly humiliates Pai and forbids her to learn more. She simply waits, watches, and listens—for emotional support from her indignantly wise grandmother and for signs from the semi-mystical ocean bordering the town. After an unexpectedly poignant climax, in which Pai recites a speech about unity and teamwork during a school performance, Providence (of sorts) intervenes, causing a near-fatal disruption in the village’s fabric, baptizing Pai in the rolling ocean, and eventually setting Koro and his community on the path to spiritual recovery.
And before you know it, everything in the film has happened. One of Whale Rider’s strengths is this gentle sway in narrative movement, offering up details (the size of a stomach, the habits of an artist, cigarette smoke over a late-afternoon card game) that wash out in the tide of the film’s central motifs about family and responsibility, leaving impressions that add depth to the story. Also, Caro wisely reveals much of its emotional subtext in only one or two scenes. Her restraint allows for a glimpse into the truest potential of a community and its members, digging at the deepest resolves of its characters while acknowledging the ultimate value of divine intervention.
Along the way, Pai becomes the logical conclusion of the powerful old idea of the child as centerpiece and savior, all while maintaining a human face and a curiosity about her past and future. She isn’t a victim of her grandfather’s disrespect; nor is she a miracle-shouting visionary. She simply figures out the truths around her and lets a mystical form of fate do the rest, setting an optimistic example for both adults and children that might seem too rosy for nihilists but certainly feels relieving for everyone else, Maori or not. If, as critic Roger Ebert recently said about Whale Rider, “there is a vast difference between movies for 12-year-old girls and movies about 12-year-old girls,” then we’re in dire straits, and what Caro accomplishes with this film, and what Keisha Castle-Hughes accomplishes with Pai, might help even such a cynical divide. Of course, we’ve all got to do our part too, and I’d argue that seeing this film with your 12-year-olds (or 9-year-olds or however-many-year-olds) is a good place to start.