I absolutely love Whale Rider. It manages to be heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, without ever getting sappy. Plus, freaking whales!
Keisha Castle-Hughes is absolutely amazing as Paikea, a 12 year old Maori girl who aspires to inherit leadership of her tribe despite being female. Her grandfather, Koro, is the current chief, descended directly from the original Paikea who rode the whale from Hawaiki to found their people. Unable to forgive his son for leaving after the death of Paikea’s mother and twin brother in childbirth, he raises his granddaughter but refuses to consider her as the next chief. When he starts training the village boys to take over for him, Pai tries to join the class and then secretly listens in when he makes her leave. With the encouragement of her grandmother, Nanny Flowers, and the help of Uncle Rawiri, Pai learns the sacred chants and how to fight with the taiaha, which is forbidden to girls. Unfortunately, she gets caught fighting with (and beating!) a boy in the class and Koro kicks her out of the house, furious that she disobeyed and that none of the boys were able to retrieve the whale tooth he threw in the ocean (though Pai later retrieves it and has her uncle give it to Nanny Flowers). Fearing for the future of his tribe if they have no leader he calls to the whales for help. Pai calls to them as well, and they come. On the night of Pai’s school recital, where she has planned to honor her grandfather, Koro finds a school of whales that has stranded on the beach. The whole village bands together to try to save them, but fails. Exhausted, they turn away from the largest whale, which traditionally belongs to their ancestor Paikea. Disobeying Koro’s direct order, Pai climbs on the large whale and urges it back into the water, at which time the rest of the school follows. Everyone fears that Pai has drowned, but she’s somehow rescued and Koro sits with her in the hospital, having passed his whale tooth on to her. The film ends with the village launching her father’s boat, which had been left unfinished for years, with Pai and Koro sitting happily together. Yay!
The biggest conflict in the film is obviously Paikea’s struggle against her grandfather’s patriarchal views. How awesome is it that she proves that a girl can be a leader too? And how sad is it that he keeps rejecting her for simply being born female? I love that her grandmother encourages Pai to defy Koro, and that her uncle, his girlfriend, and their friends join in the conspiracy to teach her. Are you angry with Pai’s father for leaving her and starting a new family in Germany, or do you sympathize with his need to escape his grief and his father’s expectations? How much did you cry during Pai’s speech honoring Koro? (I love that Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for an Oscar for this role; she was so good.) It’s also awesome to see a successful and critically acclaimed movie that isn’t about white people and doesn’t look at a different culture through a White lens. We get a glimpse of Maori culture without turning them into a caricature. I love it.
Our next movie club meeting will be on October 5th. Halloween is coming, and we’re watching Labyrinth!
Hold on to your dicks!