A Girl? Never!
Young Maori challenges tradition.

WHALE RIDER: Written and directed by Niki Caro, based on the 1986 novel by Witi Ihimaera. Produced by Tim Sanders, John Barnett, Frank Hubner. Cinematography, Leon Narbey. Editor, David Coulson. Music, Lisa Gerrard. Production design, Grant Major. Maori cultural adviser, Hone Taumaunu. Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton and Cliff Curtis. Newmarket Films, 2003. PG-13. 102 minutes.


This film has much to recommend, but one of the most important is its evocation of place. The Maori of New Zealand are very active participants in the place where they live. Every tribe has its marae, a large piece of land and associated building. The people of Whangara, a coastal village on the East Coast of the North Island, have a marae that faces the bay and a distinctive, beautifully decorated meeting house where all tribal events of significance take place.

However, these people have witnessed the decline of their culture. Young people move to the cities; unable to find work, they turn to alcohol, drugs or else become thugs. When the film opens, customs and native language are being lost, and old tribal ways are dying out.

So it's a pleasant surprise that in this village, school children learn to perform Kapa Haka, the Maori songs, dances and myths that sustained the people for many centuries. Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) loves the old lore. She is eager to perform, especially for her grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), an elder tribal chief, who picks up the girl at school every day on his ancient bicycle. Grandfather believes that Pai's twin brother, who died at birth, with their mother, would have become the new leader of the Ngati Konohi, a subtribe of other Maori who live along the coast. But a girl? Never!

Pai is pretty young to harbor such ambition, yet she is determined to show Koro that she is capable of learning what a chief must know. But he rebuffs the girl's attempts to connect with him. His cruel words and dismissive attitude are hurtful. But we know something from watching her that neither Pai herself nor Koro know: She is a natural leader, and her decisions will democratize the way the people approach their collective spiritual, tribal life. After all, her father named her Paikea for the (male) tribal ancestor who the myth says arrived in the village on the back of a whale, a legend 1,000 years old.

One of the film's few subplots involves old grudges between Koro and Pai's father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), who has made a name for himself as an artist in Europe. He doesn't come to the village often, though he loves Pai. But the old man cannot forgive his eldest son for not following the old ways. Koro wanted to teach Porourangi the war movements called haka, Maori weaponry and traditional chant. But instead Koro must teach the village lads, while Pai secretly observes and practices.

Grandmother Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton) is the intermediary between Pai and Koro, but she is no pushover. She stands up to her prickly husband and is also a cultural leader. He may rule the tribal government, she says, but at home she's the boss. So when she suddenly packs up Pai's things, the 12-year old knows that it is time for her to stay elsewhere until Koro returns to himself. He has suffered a great disappointment over the poor performance of the boys he's been training.

Paikea, which also means "whale," emerged from the watery world at this spectacular bay. Whales still visit, and they are very special to members of the tribe. When Pai needs to be alone, she walks out to the large outrigger canoe abandoned by her father long ago and looks at the bay, waiting for a sign. One of the loveliest scenes is Pai singing to the whales, calling them in a whale-like chant from this boat on land.

A perfect film for older kids and parents, Niki Caro's film not only empowers girls to dream big but also shows how traditional male roles can be re-shaped to include everyone, equally. Opens Wednesday, July 2 at the Bijou. Winner of Sundance 2003 audience award, this film is very highly recommended.

Films open the Friday following date of EW publication unless otherwise noted. See archived movie reviews.

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Whale Rider: Winner of the World Cinema award at Sundance 2003, Niki Caro's Maori drama about a spunky girl, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes), who decides to show her beloved but authoritarian grandfather that she is able to lead the tribe, despite being a girl. A wonderful, inspiring drama that features the exquisite New Zealand coast. A don't-miss movie. Bijou. See review this issue.

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Releases subject to change. Available the Tuesday following date of EW publication, sometimes sooner. See archived movie reviews.

Gangs of New York: Martin Scorsese's epic set in mid-1800s N.Y. stars Leonard DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis as rival gang leaders. The notorious Civil War draft riots also rock the city. Co-stars Cameron Diaz, John C. Reilly and Jim Broadbent. One of 2002's great films. Very highest recommendations. R. Cinema World. Online archives.

How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days: Magazine columnist Kate Hudson and ad agency professional Matthew McConaughey try to get the other to fall in love, but things go awry. High-energy romantic comedy. PG-13.

La Femme Nikita (France, 1991): Special edition DVD of Luc Besson film that inspired the television series. Acclaimed performance by Annie Parillaud as the street urchin who becomes a government assassin. R

Party Girl (1994): Mixed reviews for Daisy von Scherler Mayer's film starring Parker Posey as a club girl who discovers the joys of a librarian. Also stars Liev Schreiber. R.

Phone Booth: Colin Farrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Katie Holmes and Radha Mitchell star in Joel Schumacher's thriller. R.


Next week: Gods & Generals, Laurel Canyon, Pinocchio, Shanghai Knights.

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