Grade: A-
Entire family: No
2002, 101 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for brief language and a momentary drug reference
Shout! Factory
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Amazon link

This word-of-mouth hit about a 12-year-old Maori girl captured audience-favorite awards at the Toronto, Rotterdam, and Sundance international film festivals. It’s a feel-good movie that makes you feel a little bad along the way, a “girl power” coming of age story that also involves the girl’s patriarchal-minded grandfather who comes to understand that the best way to preserve the past is to embrace a gender-equal future.

Like Hoosiers, where you know a ragtag bunch of basketball losers are going to somehow win, the plot in Whale Rider is somewhat formulaic. But as with that Indiana roundball saga, the ride itself is really something, and not just because of the fantastic performances or the beautiful cinematography and New Zealand landscape. Just when you begin to think the outcome is predictable, writer-director Niki Caro manipulates a change in current or plumbs the emotional depths to take the performances to another level.

Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is short for Paikea, the first in a long line of Maori chiefs who, according to legend, rode a whale from Hawaii to New Zealand. Her grandfather, Chief Koro (Rawiri Paratene), thought that Pai’s father (Cliff Curtiss) might be the “savior” in this lineage needed to rescue a people who had lapsed into laziness and substance abuse, but the boy rebelled against his father and became an artist who left his Maori culture and homeland behind. He also left behind his only daughter, who survived a childbirth that claimed her mother and the twin brother that Koro had pinned his next hopes on to lead the people back to the old ways. The film follows Koro’s attempts to train young village boys in order to select a new chief to succeed him, while his granddaughter watches (and practices) from the wings, refusing to give in to the patriarchy that keeps her from being considered. Aiding her with her secret training is a lovable ne’er-do-well uncle (Grant Roa|a) who was once the best of the Maori fighters.

Castle-Hughes’ performance is so amazing and she plays off of the veteran Maori actors so well that it’s hard to believe she was plucked from her classroom when a film crew came by looking for a non-actor who could swim and smile underwater (she lied . . . err, acted as if she could). It’s just as hard to believe that the film was so low-budget that only two whale models were rigged so a human could crawl inside and impart movement. The production values are surprisingly rich-looking for an indie film that made it big.

It’s odd but fortunate that 2003 brought audiences two sleeper foreign-made films about pre-adult girls striving to attain something denied them because of gender—Whale Rider and Bend It Like Beckham, featuring an equally impressive debut performance by Parminder K. Nagra as a young woman who persists until she’s finally allowed to play the “man’s game” of soccer/football. But give Castle-Hughes the edge. Her performance is as moving as Lisa Gerard’s soundtrack, with its shell horn notes and mystical tones—a perfect complement to footage of whales and the implication that Koro and his granddaughter can commune with them psychically.

Though the liner notes make Whale Rider sound like a Disney live-action coming-of-age adventure, and while it’s rated PG-13 for “brief language and a momentary drug reference,” this is an intense film that probably isn’t suited for children much younger than its star. The film opens with a traumatic hospital scene depicting the aftermath of a tragic childbirth that claimed the lives of mother and one twin. In addition, Koro’s prolonged and hurtful rejection of his granddaughter, plus grand-scale moments of peril for the heroine, make this an emotional journey that may be too much for younger children. But it’s a satisfying and memorable film for a family movie night with older viewers, when everyone is in the mood for a drama.

Shout! Factory has a reputation for putting out quality products, and this Blu-ray is no exception. The transfer is excellent and the 15th Anniversary Edition comes with a Digital Copy, director commentary, deleted scenes, and two brief bonus features. It’s worth upgrading to HD if you currently own the DVD.

Language: A handful of mild obscenities
Sex: None, but reference to male and female genitalia and a girl is filmed bathing (no private areas shown)
Violence: Some corporal punishment and some practice fighting
Adult situations: Some adult smoking and drinking, plus a bag of what appears to be pot
Takeaway: This indie film was an inspiration to small independent filmmakers because it proved a small-budget film shot with integrity could also become a mainstream hit