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Whale Rider

Release date: June 6
Distributor: Newmarket Films

Like the determined Maori girl who struggles against all odds to lead her people in “Whale Rider,” the film itself is a scrappy upstart in this year’s Academy Awards race.

Armed with an impressive cache of audience awards from international film festivals (Rotterdam, San Francisco, Sundance, Seattle, Toronto) and boasting a solid $20 million-plus at the U.S. box office, Niki Caro’s coming-of-age crowdpleaser won’t go down without a fight. (Take note: Past winners of Toronto’s People’s Choice Award “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “American Beauty” and “Amelie” all earned Oscar attention.)

While indie distrib Newmarket doesn’t have the marketing dollars of a major studio, the company snagged Oscar noms in 2002 for low-budget hit “Memento.”

But with big-hearted appeal and prestige value, “Whale Rider” could rally wider Acad support. Occupying this year’s “Billy Elliot” spot, the film’s inspiring story of triumph has struck a chord with critics and industryites alike.

Most of the attention falls on Keisha Castle-Hughes, a 13-year-old thesp with no prior experience, who plays the determined Pai with subtlety and steely determination.

While the competition is always stiff among seasoned actors, Castle-Hughes could follow in the footsteps of another Kiwi newcomer, Anna Paquin, who at 11 took supporting acting honors for her role in “The Piano.”

Adding to the film’s appeal to the older-aged Academy members are a pair of memorable grandparents: the strict Koro (played by vet Rawiri Paratene), a man bound by tradition, and his strong-willed wife (Vicky Haughton).

Based on New Zealand’s bestselling novel by Witi Ihimaera, the film has a chance for an adapted screenwriting nom for writer-director Caro, who deftly balances seriousness with sentimentality — an always attractive combo to Oscar.

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