Peter Jackson was able to show worldwide audiences the immense beauty and spectacle of his native home New Zealand back in 2001 with the beginning of what would later become the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. What director Niki Caro was able to reveal to us with her 2002 film ‘Whale Rider“, was the beauty that lurked behind the landscape of Jackson’s wide array of vistas. She managed to capture not only the unique traditions of New Zealand’s tribal communities as well as the troubles of modern day rural families, but also a personal coming-of-age tale about a girl who wishes to complete a ritual challenge meant only for men. The story of Whale Rider is one every country’s cinema has produced in surplus over the years. Films such as Ken Loach’s “Kes” (1969) or John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood” (1991) have managed to explore the inner facets of characters attempting rise above their situations to the point where there’s almost nothing left to discover. One New Zealand based film that was executed wonderfully with a similar theme was Lee Tamahori’s “Once Were Warriors” made in 1994 and featuring an outstanding performance from Teumera Morrison as a broken father.
Whale Rider is a film that could very easily be marketed as a family-friendly orientated drama and in several sections of the film’s narrative that kind of biased marketing could easily be exploited for a PG rated trailer. However the real film lingers behind the wonderfully shot family backdrops that Caro stages. More specifically the film lingers inside the incredible performance of Keisha Castle-Hughes as the main character of Paikea, who not only is the youngest actress to have been nominated for an academy award; but is one of the most talented child actors ever witnessed in a film. She exceeds beyond any expectations you could have coming into the film as her portrayal of a young girl cast away by her traditionalist grandfather is an exceptionally real, yet also very earnest portrait. You feel for her emotionally throughout and truly want Paikea to succeed in her ability to convince her old-fashioned grandfather that she is just as worthy as any man.
The simplicity of Caro’s screenplay combined with Hughes’ performance help to make the story standout above the rising mountain of teenage dramas that are produced each year. The way in which Paikea begins the cliched but important first steps towards challenging the traditions of her tribal people, wonderfully embodied by her jaded grandfather, are so slowly paced that you’d almost be tempted to skip certain scenes as a means to speed up the narrative. However once you begin to appreciate the stunning cinematography of Leon Narbey, especially in how he frames the many underwater sequences, the meditative mood of Whale Rider starts to sink in.
This mood is most certainly enhanced by the exceptionally powerful score by Lisa Gerrad, a fellow collaborator of Hans Zimmer’s; one of her more memorable pieces earlier was in her work with Zimmer on Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000). The soundtrack alone is worth listening to but when composed over such rich visual sequences such as one particular moment involving a group of beach whales; you really do appreciate the power of Gerrard’s direction. This collection of outstanding elements such as Keisha Hughes’s performance, Rawiri Paratene’s embodiment of tradition and generational refusal, the collaboration between Caro and Narbey’s vision; all help to make Whale Rider stand out immensely. Not just as a family drama, but as an important story about older generations discovering that traditions require evolution. It also works as a great holiday ad for New Zealand’s West coast too!