This strong adaptation of Witi Ihimaera’s 1986 novel, “The Whale Rider” combines straightforward coming-of-age narrative with Maori mysticism to most engaging effect. Second bigscreen feature for New Zealand director-scenarist Niki Caro (following 1998’s “Memory & Desire” and much local TV work) may have some trouble positioning itself between family-pic and arthouse poles in certain territories. But further fest exposure and good word-of-mouth — as evidenced by its audience award for best feature at Toronto — should aid theatrical travel prior to healthy ancillary sales.
Prologue depicts a difficult birth resulting in death for both a young mother and infant boy. Latter’s twin sister survives, but father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) is inconsolable, his grief compounded by grandfather Koro aka Paka’s (Rawiri Paratene) immediate push for a new marriage.
Descended from a long line of tribal leaders, Paka is obsessed with grooming a next-generation chief who will “lead our people out of the darkness” that modern life has led them into. But in his strictly traditional view, a girl child is “worthless” — at least for this purpose. Disgusted, native arts sculptor Porourangi goes abroad, leaving daughter Pai to be raised by single-minded Paka and the much more accommodating grandma Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton), who’s forever half-joking she’ll divorce her warrior-tempered spouse.
In his own way, Paka does love his only grandchild, and a close bond develops between them. But when Porourangi visits from Germany some years later, all old conflicts flare anew — made worse by the news that this easygoing yet distant son is now expecting a child with a German girlfriend. In the heat of the moment, Paka denounces both Porourangi and now nearly adolescent Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes). Despite this blow, latter can’t quite convince herself to leave with Dad — she knows somehow that her destiny still lies here.
Domestic discord worsens when Paka, resigned to the fact that a new community leader will have to be made rather than born, opens a “sacred school” to educate local boys in “the old ways — the qualities of a chief.” These involve everything from religious ritual to martial arts instruction. None of his lazy male charges shows great promise, while the rift between grandfather and grandchild widens as she instructs herself in these customs on the sly — a breach Paka considers blasphemous, ignoring all signs that Pai herself is a natural (perhaps even supernatural) leader.
The elder’s stubborn vision is eroded by a series of disasters, climaxing when numerous whales (sacred to Maori beliefs) are found beached on the nearby shore. It seems no one can save the rapidly expiring mammals. But this karmic catastrophe is averted in the nick by little Pai — whose true calling becomes clear even to Grandpa via a miraculous display of spiritual power.
That this titular event doesn’t come off as ludicrous — Caro stages Pai’s oceanic “ride” in convincing, incomplete glimpses — attests to pic’s deft blending of domestic drama, humor and hinted magic, balancing each off the other. Performers’ warmth provides welcome respite from what might have easily become a too-depressing narrative, since the ego blows dealt Pai by her misguided granddad are fairly brutal. Newcomer Castle-Hughes’ unaffected, confident turn makes it credible our heroine might retain her determination and self-worth despite serial setbacks.
Gritty location shooting in Whangara well suits tale’s essentially realist base in intergenerational psychology; well-paced effort’s other design and tech aspects are accomplished.