Whale Rider (2002) NYT Critics' Pick
June 6, 2003
FILM REVIEW; A Girl Born To Lead, Fighting The Odds
By ELVIS MITCHELL
Published: June 6, 2003
Thestoic mysticism of Niki Caro's cool-handed charmer ''Whale Rider'' -- in which the young Pai must overcome resistance as she tries to assume her destiny as the leader of a tribe on the New Zealand coast-- is wickedly absorbing. Much of the film's power comes from the delicate charisma of Keisha Castle-Hughes, making her acting debut as Pai.
Ms. Castle-Hughes lacks the traditional resources of anactress, and instead communicates her feelings through a wary hesitation. It doesn't matter that her voice makes her sound a little lost, still trying to find her way into a world that disdains her.Her intelligent, dark eyes are so expressive that she has the piquant confidence of a silent-film heroine.
Her instinctive underplaying gives ''Whale Rider'' an added gravity, with the lush remotenessof the landscape serving as an entrancing contrast to the sugar-rush, you-go-girl empowerment of programmed pandering like ''The Lizzie McGuire Movie,'' whose tweener heroine flails her arms and batsher eyes as if she were sending distress signals. The director demonstrates a class and tact that brand ''Whale Rider,'' which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, as more than a time-filler foryoung moviegoers or an ironman competition for adults accompanying them.
Pai's natural rectitude -- the way she plays both pride and hurt -- is even used by Ms. Caro as a hereditary trait. Pai'sprickly grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) displays a contempt for her that is like a deadpan force of nature itself. Koro, the tribal chief, wanted a grandson to take on his mantle. But Pai's twin brotherdied in a difficult birth, which also took her mother's life, and her father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), has deserted the family for a career as an artist. Koro treats his granddaughter as the...