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Royal Ways: Keisha Castle-Hughes plays a girl destined to be a Maori tribal leader in 'Whale Rider.'

Maori Moves

A young girl reaches her destiny in 'Whale Rider'

By Richard von Busack

IT'S PROBABLY best to leave Whale Rider as it stands: a good movie for mothers and daughters, a healthy treat for 'tweens weary of Hillary Duff and Mandy Moore. Whale Rider is based on a bestselling novel by Witi Ihimaera, former consul general to the United States from New Zealand. (Once upon a time, a book like this would have been sold through the Scholastic Book Service.) The film rallies the spiritual qualities of a people to pull away from the most toxic Western influences of hopelessness and alcoholism.

Yet it's not a particularly preachy movie and has a skeptical side. One of the characters, a slouchy, rebellious uncle who smokes pot and drinks beer, doesn't get reformed, or even seriously harassed. In depicting the Maori manhood rituals--analogous in many ways to a bar mitzvah--writer/director Niki Caro notes how the preteen boys are simultaneously worried and bored by the demands of an old chief trying to initiate them.

The widescreen vistas of the unspoiled coast of New Zealand and the details of the wharenui, the meeting house, with its weavings and gorgeous carvings, rarely appear onscreen. Because Whale Rider features no major stars and received its release on the basis of word of mouth and film festivals, it serves as an example of a little movie that could. Whale Rider is, all told, quality work, and if it weren't for the fact that many critics will overpraise its simplicity, it would be best to leave well enough alone.

The film, which tells the story of a modern-day Maori princess in the coastal village of Whangara, stars Keisha Castle-Hughes as a forlorn girl who knows she has the destiny to be a tribal leader. She's named Pai--short for Paikea, a legendary hero who rode a whale guiding their people to Aotearoa (what the whites call New Zealand).

Pai is the survivor of a pair of twins. She bears not just the heartbreak of losing her mother in childbirth but also the disdain of her powerful grandfather Koro (impressively played by Rawiri Paratene), who had longed for a boy to continue the lineage of chiefs. What the old man can't realize is that this granddaughter is a prophet, meant to take over, despite her sex.

Pai's father, Porourangi, grieving and smothered by tradition, is played by Cliff Curtis, unfairly relegated to drug dealer roles in American films. He goes overseas to be a sculptor, and Pai grows up with little attention, except from her grandmother Nanny (Vicky Haughton). Still, she carries inside her a sense of her own destiny. Unknown to Koro, she learns the martial arts of a warrior; she learns even more from her easygoing uncle, a rebel against Koro's authority

Unfortunately, Caro loses track of Pai's friend Hemi (Mana Taumaunu), who sort of vanishes from view. He's shut out of the rituals of manhood because Pai beat him in a martial arts contest. Even so, Hemi is not intimidated by the sometimes bossy girl. Taumaunu can raise an eyebrow with the effortlessness of a Cary Grant. He provides a needed contrast to Pai's solemnness and traces of imperiousness.

Castle-Hughes is unaffected and coltish--a Maori Hayley Mills. It would take something stronger than Mills herself to sell one scene where Pai weeps during a school pageant because her grandfather doesn't arrive; Caro lets this go on for far too long. Moreover after Pai has retrieved a sacred object from the ocean, Nanny doesn't give this proof of her sacred destiny to the old man. It's because, we're told, "He's not ready yet." When you hear that, you know it's actually the audience that is not supposed to be ready yet. As with Bend It Like Beckham, Whale Rider's positive girl-friendly values are woven in with a remorseless predictability.

Despite the film's qualities as a family film, it's another one of those fantasies of aristocracy that still flourish in the British Commonwealth. It has been said of our homegrown fairy tale--The Wizard of Oz--that it is distinctly American because Dorothy Gale isn't a princess but a sturdy farm girl who asks all the right questions. Even, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's destiny had nothing to do with breeding.

Underneath the beauty of Whale Rider, and the sentimental finale of beached whales saved from death, lies a discordant endorsement of the pomp of heredity royalty. Few may realize it; and fewer may worry about it. Probably American faith in democracy is at an all-time low, and the fantasy of hereditary leaders is tempting even to a foreign-film audience that ought to know better.

Whale Rider (PG-13; 105 min.), directed and written by Niki Caro, photographed by Leon Narbey and starring Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rawiri Paratene, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the June 19-25, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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