Even if it were not dragging a flotilla of film festival prizes in its wake, Whale Rider fetches up on these shores with something to prove. After all, it's one thing to collect awards in the notably benign climate of the festival circuit, and quite another to convince audiences that a movie in which whales are saved isn't just a worthy eco-hymn. From advance reports, I had envisaged a solemn Maori-style rerun of Free Willy, perhaps combined with a defanged version of Lee Tamahori's breakdown-of-a-culture epic, Once Were Warriors. Sort of Once Willy was a Warrior, and Free.
Well, I was mistaken. While not absolutely the knockout some have promised it to be, Whale Rider makes for crowd-pleasing entertainment, cleaving gracefully to a path of realistic storytelling before careening late on into the mythic. If there is a film with which it has resonances, it's Jane Campion's The Piano, in the opening shots of the waves, the majestic feel for the New Zealand landscape and, most significantly, the austere celebration of female cussedness and independence. Unlike Holly Hunter's mute Ada, however, the heroine of this picture speaks, but her voice too is silenced, metaphorically at least, by a narrow social tradition that privileges the male.
In the coastal village of Whangara, a small Maori community which claims its lineage from Paikea, "the Whale Rider", is in want of a new leader. A proud 11-year-old tomboy, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) believes she is destined to be the one, but the present chief, her gruff grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), won't countenance the idea of a female successor. Pai was a survivor of twins - her brother died at birth, taking their mother with him - a trauma the girl recalls in voiceover (again echoing The Piano). The bereaved father (Cliff Curtis), Koro's own son, has made a new life for himself as an artist in Europe, leaving Pai in the care of Koro and his wife Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton).
Adapting from the novel by Witi Ihimaera, director Niki Caro has a brisk, economical way with narrative, furnishing only a minimum of back story. For example, Pai recounts how her grandfather "wished I'd never been born", while the camera lingers on the pair of them happily riding a bike together - the old man, despite himself, has conceived a deep affection for his grand-daughter, but the film doesn't feel obliged to explain how. Sometimes it's a shade too economical: I could understand why Pai's father would want to escape the glowering Koro, but there seems no reason for him to abandon his daughter.
The stand-off between Koro and Pai finally comes to a head when Koro takes it upon himself to instruct the village boys in the Maori traditions: he's determined that one of them will prove himself worthy of the leadership. Pai, excluded from the classroom, secretly learns how to wield the taiaha (the long wooden staff Maoris use in combat), and when she bests the star pupil in a fight, Koro, instead of saying "That's my girl," looks about fit to explode. Rawiri Paratene's face, congested with fury, would strike fear into the hearts of grown men, so it only piques him further that he can't bring an 11-year-old girl to submission. The film, humane in its sympathy, doesn't simply condemn Koro for his patriarchal intransigence. Rather, it sees an old man desperate to preserve traditions that modern society is whittling away to nothing.
In one of the most poignant scenes, Pai, on stage in native garb and face paint for the school concert, delivers a speech in honour of Koro, whose seat in the audience is conspicuously empty. The camera keeps glancing towards the auditorium door, as if expecting Koro to walk in, just as Pai is choking back sobs in her effort to get to the end. Most films would go that route, but not this one, and you applaud its refusal. All the same, the film's dramatic tenor feels pretty obvious - when will Big Chief Po-Face recognise that the future leader of his people is the girl standing there in front of him? Rather more interesting is the unfinished business between Pai and her father, Porourangi, who abandoned her for 11 years. Do we not sense in their relationship a story more complex and involving than the one we've been watching?
If you want to see a movie about a pubescent girl coming to terms with family breakdown in modern New Zealand, then it's not this film I'd recommend. Christine Jeffs' recent debut, Rain, is an amazingly atmospheric picture which touches on similar themes of childhood hurt and loss, but frames them in a more compelling and unusual way. Whale Rider is tenderly directed, makes the landscape look beautiful (but then New Zealand always does look beautiful) and features a lovely, unaffected performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes, who, it's hard to believe, had never acted prior to this. What it doesn't do, except for its outlandish magic-realist denouement, is surprise. As Pai says at the start, "My grandfather wished I'd never been born - but he changed his mind." We of course feel pleased that he does, but, let's be honest, the outcome was never in doubt.