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Whale Rider

Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes
Director: Niki Caro
Genre: Drama
Year: 2003
Rating: 4 / 5

Contrary to the grandeur its name implies, Whale Rider is a quiet, unassuming film that creeps up on the viewer before slowly enveloping him. The story of a young Maori girl battling centuries of tradition is one of emotional depth, something visibly conveyed by the film’s star, Keisha Castle-Hughes. Needless to say, Whale Rider would not be receiving the sort of attention it is were it not for Castle-Hughes, who, at age thirteen, became the youngest woman ever honored with a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Castle-Hughes bears the weight of an entire film on her thin, wispy shoulders, never once flinching under the pressure. It is this resolve that allows Castle-Hughes to thrive and makes Whale Rider something truly special.

The Apirana family in New Zealand serves a leadership function for the local Maori community. After all, the family proudly boasts that its members are direct descendents from the ancient ancestors who long ago arrived on the backs on whales. Leadership is passed from one generation to the next, but only males may inherit this mantle. This leads to some tense moments as patriarch Koro Apirana (Rawiri Paratene) anxiously awaits the arrival of his first grandchild. His own son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) has been something of a disappointment in his eyes, and a grandson seems a surefire way to ensure that the tribe’s history carries on. However, things turn out rather differently than Koro would have hoped…

Instead of finding the future for the tribe, the birth yields only heartache for Koro and his family. Two children, a boy and a girl, are born, but only the female survives. Porourangi’s wife dies in the process, pushing him over the edge and into a nomadic existence. This leaves his daughter Pai in the hands of Koro, a man who stubbornly refuses to see past her gender. As Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) grows and the community’s fortunes begin to falter, Koro leads a crusade to find the tribe its next leader. All of the young boys are gathered to be taught and tested in hopes that one will emerge as the rightful leader. Little does Koro know that the logical choice has been right under his nose all along.

Writer-director Niki Caro weaves an inspiring tale of one young woman who will not surrender to the forces of tradition. With her father absent and her grandfather steadfastly against her, Pai nonetheless continues to pursue her dreams. She secretly watches her grandfather and implores her relatives to aid her as she attempts to find herself and save her community. Castle-Hughes is mesmerizing as the young leader, conveying the wide-eyed wonder of childhood along with a knowledge belying her years. She proves a worthy foil for her more seasoned co-stars, forcing us to believe that this young girl really can make a difference. This tale rings true for the film itself, as Whale Rider convinces us to invest emotionally and leads us on a soaring journey.


Keisha Castle-Hughes..........Pai Apirana
Rawiri Paratene..........Koro Apirana
Vicky Haughton..........Nanny Flowers Apirana

Certification: Rated PG-13 for language.
Running Time: 101 minutes.

Additional Info: Internet Movie Database
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