According to the press notes, Whale Rider is "a magical and deeply moving story of a young girl's struggle to fulfil her destiny" - is it any wonder I felt wary? Given that it actually does feature whales, I expected this New Zealand film - the audience favourite at several festivals - to be a cuddly heart-warmer, a female, Kiwi Elliot with New Age trimmings. But hardened art-house cynics can breathe easy. Moving Whale Rider certainly is, but it's also bracingly austere, and low on manipulation. Because it has a 12-year-old heroine, it looks on the surface like a children's film, but it's no less adult or challenging than, say, Kes. Don't be fooled by young Keisha Castle-Hughes's radiant smile on the poster, either: her heroine is as moody, introverted and downright strange as any adolescent with an idée fixe.
Whale Rider is Niki Caro's follow-up to her arrestingly sombre debut Memory and Desire, about a young Japanese couple's holiday in New Zealand (one of them dies). She's a great one for starkness, and though Whale Rider is a gorgeously framed nature study, you'd never recognise this New Zealand as the all-terrain theme park of the Lord of the Rings films. The setting is a small coastal community where the sky is always overcast, interiors are the colour of mud, and the sea is inkily churning with portents. The film begins with the birth of Maori twins: the boy and the mother die, which is bad news for the surviving girl, as her sternly traditional grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) blames her for breaking the line of male descent and supplanting the grandson who might have succeeded him as rangatira, or chief. To vex him further, the girl's father - before storming off to Europe - names her Pai, after Paikea, a mythical founder-saviour who emerged from the sea on the back of a whale.
Twelve years later, Koro is training the village boys in an initiation ceremony designed to find the best and boldest among them - a sort of competitive bar mitzvah with compulsory sports. Pai fancies herself a contender and can't wait to start training with the traditional taiaha, or fighting stick, but Koro sees her innocent ambition as nothing less than blasphemous subversion, and excludes her with punitive fury.
For all its emphasis on Maori customs, Whale Rider is in no way folkloric. The Maori language comes thick and fast, but the film doesn't go out of its way to explain; rather than welcome us like tourists, it obliges us to find our own way around. (I have the press-book glossary in front to me, and realise that I still don't know a waka from a haka, a karanga from a karakia.)
Caro's script, from Witi Ihimaera's novel, asks how such tradition can hope to cement a people together if its dogma excludes half of them; the film's, and Pai's, quarrel is with Maori fundamentalism. One of Whale Rider's most moving moments, and in a way its most horrific, is the scene in which Pai delivers a school speech, dedicated in love and terror to her grandfather. It's both a tour de force of humble defiance and a shocking apology for being born female: "It wasn't anybody's fault, it just happened." We also see how heavily the tradition weighs on the males too. Koro warns his pupils, "It's not just your fathers that are watching you - all your ancestors are watching too" - which suggests that Maori belief can hold its own among the world's great guilt-inducing credos.
Pai finally lives up to her destiny in a strange and spectacular climax. You want to cheer Pai's passion and nerve, but the film's originality is that it doesn't make her a standard joyous redeeming tyke. For a start, Castle-Hughes is courageously uningratiating as a performer. What makes us believe in Pai's appetite for life is that it rarely appears as the expected effusiveness: she looks consistently solemn, even anxious, emotions very much internalised. When it comes to her big tear-filled moment, we're swept up with the emotion because it's been reined in until then.
There's something a little disturbing, too, about Pai's faith in her destiny, her earnestness (she warns her grandmother's friends not to smoke: Maori women "have got to protect our child-bearing properties"), not to mention her apparent telepathic connection with whales. The way she immerses herself in her climactic adventure suggests she's something of a messianic extremist herself: her conviction certainly makes Billy Elliot's hoofing ambitions look anaemic.
While you can take Whale Rider on a purely intimate level as a coming-of-age story, the film's bigger stake is the meaning and purpose of myth. Maori lore is taken seriously, not as local colour (Poko snorts that his son's sculptures, all the rage in Europe, are nothing but "souvenirs") but as a functioning belief system designed to ensure the survival of the race. There is arguably a fundamentalist tinge to the story: a distaste for the cultural miscegenation that makes Pai's amiable uncle a feckless stoner and another bunch of men rap-listening gangsta types. But if you're going to have tradition, the film argues, you have to be prepared to change it.
Caro never feels the need to keep us interested with spurious comic touches, or to soften us up by making the characters approachably lovable beneath the harshness. Even if we sympathise with Koro, his bellicose commitment to the old ways makes him genuinely frightening, and Paratene embodies his grizzled, troubled authoritarianism to perfection. The film's emotional payoff isn't the obvious one, either: Pai's reconciliation isn't with her grandfather or her father, so much as with the Maori culture she's helped rewrite.
Leon Narbey's photography gives the film a steely visual consistency that means the euphoria, when it comes, is honestly won. Whale Rider is about as uncompromising as a feel-good film gets, with not an ounce of excess blubber.