Whale Rider is a beautiful coming of age story that stays with you long after the movie has ended. Paikea is a young Maori girl who is the namesake of her people’s great ancestor. As she begins to shape her identity and understand her rightful place among her people, she finds herself at odds with her traditional grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene). This is a film about rejection, love, and ultimately finding one’s destiny.
While I was most impacted by the story itself, there is a wonderful group of actors who help bring the story to life. Namely Keisha Castle-Hughes who stars as the protagonist Paikea.
Though very young at the time, Hughes delivers an incredibly powerful performance. She is inquisitive and precocious, but also bold in a subtle sort of way. There is such an innocence and gentleness about her and though small in stature, Hughes fills the screen whenever she’s on it. It is no surprise that her performance garnered a nomination for Best Actress.
Like many girls around the world, Paikea faces a challenge in her life because of the simple fact that she was not born a boy. In her family, first born sons are seen as highly valuable because they will go on to one day govern the people. At Paikea’s birth, both her twin brother and mother passed away. Her father, played by Cliff Curtis, is racked with grief about this and leaves their island to start a new life elsewhere. Koro is distraught over the loss of his grandson and the departure of his own firstborn son.
That she was unwanted from the time of her birth is not lost on the young heroine. However, her grandparents do step in and raise her.
The relationship between Paikea and her grandfather is a complicated one. On one hand, Koro grows quite fond of her and it is apparent that the two are a lot alike. On the other hand, he is extremely traditional and refuses to consider the possibility of his grand daughter becoming a leader, even though it is her birth right. It takes a while for Paikea to own the idea that she is the Chosen leader, but when she does her relationship with Koro is tested.
The supporting cast is also wonderfully talented. Paikea’s grandmother is a feisty woman who teaches her independence and boldness. Her uncle teaches her about their culture and serves as another surrogate father for her.
Whale Rider is an immersive experience; so much is explored about Maori people and their traditions and values. Theirs is a powerful and lengthy history and I can appreciate the honesty and integrity shown in the storytelling. It almost felt as if I was enveloped into this village as I was very invested in what would happen to Paikea. The ending gives some sense of closure, but creates many questions. For instance, I wonder what great things Paikea went on to accomplish for her people in the next chapter of her life. I’m not saying we need yet another sequel out in the universe, but this would be a sequel actually worth seeing.
Whale Rider is written and directed by Niki Caro, who has been at the helm of films like North Country and The Zookeeper’s Wife. Her next project will be Disney‘s live-action Mulan and I feel very confident that she will bring the same respect and honor to one of Disney’s most beloved heroines.
Whale Rider is written and directed by Niki Caro, based off the novel of the same name by Witi Ihimaera. It stars: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa, Mana Taumaunu, and Rachel House. It is currently streaming on Netflix!
Have you seen Whale Rider? What do you think Paikea would be like as an adult and chief of her people? Leave a comment below!