Written and directed by Niki Caro, inspired by a novel by Witi Ihimaera, Whale Rider has already been considered to be one of the greatest audience-grabbers in recent years and won the audience awards as the most popular film at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. It follows a 12-year-old Maori girl who has a dream of becoming the chief of her people.
The speciality of the movie is the way it sidesteps all of the obvious cliches of the underlying story, making it become fresh, tough, observant, and genuinely moving. Whale Rider proves that there is a deep difference between a movie for 12-year-old girls and a movie about 12-year-old girls.
Taking place in the present day in New Zealand, the movie starts with the birth of twins when the boy and the mother die and the girl, Pai (by Keisha Castle-Hughes) survives. Her father, Porourangi (by Cliff Curtis), an artist, decides to leave New Zealand, and the little girl Pai is raised with love by her grandparents Koro and Nanny Flowers.
Koro is the chief of these people. Meanwhile, Porourangi has no interest in returning home. Her grandfather fiercely opposes the idea Pai believes that she could serve as the chief. Despite his love, he causes Pai much hurt by questioning her achievements, doubting her, insisting in the face of everything she achieves.
Whale Rider describes these situations within the rhythms of daily life. This is the story of real people living in modern times, not a simplistic fable. There are moments when the little girl is lost in despair and discouragement, and when her father comes to visit her, she almost leaves with him. But, no, her people need her, even though her grandfather may not realize it.
Pai is played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, a newcomer who can make you quickly realize: This is a movie star. She glows, stands up to her grandfather in painful scenes, finds dignity, and then runs around the village like the kid she is.