Ride a bull, ride a whale. Ride life.
Only the males are allowed to ascend to chiefdom in a Maori tribe in New Zealand, which has been something of an ancient custom and never messed with. And for one man (Cliff Curtis), this custom is upset when the child selected to be the next chief dies at birth, leaving the twin sister, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), surviving and left to carry the hypothetical torch. The only issue is that the rest of society won’t allow it and it’s something that Pai, even at age 12, won’t back down from. With the help of her grandmother (Vicky Haughton) and the training of her uncle (Grant Roa) to claim her birthright, she sets out to become the next chief of her tribe and stand up for what she believes in is right. The only real person standing in her way is her ultra-traditional grandfather (Rawiri Paratene), who doesn’t believe in Pai at all, and surely doesn’t see her leading the tribe, like her father was supposed to do, all before he screwed it up by leaving the country and taking pictures all around the world.
Whale Rider feels like a movie made by someone making their debut. It’s slow, chock full of style, beautiful visuals, ideas, themes, and things to say, but for some reason, it just never fully comes together as well as it should. Which is odd because writer/director Niki Caro, for the most part, has made a good career for herself since this – even if this is considered to be her major breakthrough, it still feels like a movie that’s praised so much because of how different and unique it is, coming from completely out of nowhere, even if there are some truly troubling issues with it all.
And that mostly comes down to the fact that the movie just doesn’t know what it wants to say, do, or even be about. For instance, there are these ideas about new facing the old, or breaking tradition, or hell, even sexism, that actually work and seem like they could take the film in an interesting direction. But as soon as one of these themes are explored, Caro switches gears immediately, leaving her wandering eyes to pay more attention to the beautiful scenery that surrounds her characters, and not really make sense of the said characters themselves. There’s a lot of looking and sight-seeing, for sure, but much else?
Meh. Not really.
And it’s odd, because a lot of Whale Rider just seems to be beautiful visuals, small, almost-too-subtle character moments, over and over again. There’s no real driving momentum behind it – only just a very loud score and a way too quiet narration that’s supposed to guide us, but almost feels like it was thrown in there manipulatively during post because early screenings probably came back confused and abandoned. It’s not as if the movie doesn’t have an interesting style to it, but it’s just that there’s too much of the style; it’s the sign of a first-time writer/director getting their chance to work with everything at their disposal, not having a clear idea of how to work with it all, and somehow, just throwing it all out there.
Of course, some sticks and lands, but most doesn’t. What does stick and land are the actual performances themselves, most of whom are sometimes better than the material. At age 12, Keisha Castle-Hughes became notorious for being the youngest ever Best Actress nominee and with good reason – she’s smart, spunky, and entirely believable as a confused, angry, and eager 12-year-old who wants to impress everyone in her life, but unfortunately, just can’t seem to catch a break. She’s easily the most drawn-out character her and it helps that Castle-Hughes never seems like she’s trying too hard in a role that, normally, would have been way too directed, in hopes that the kid doesn’t go over-the-top or screw everything up.
Thankfully, she doesn’t.
Another great performance comes in the form of Rawiri Paratene, but his character is also the same one I seemed to have the most problems with. See, it’s this idea that constantly runs throughout Whale Rider, in which we see the old school, not be able to get with the times, and face the new school, and it’s one that Paratene’s character stays solely in, not just coming off like a bit of a stern and stubborn dick, but a total and complete evil asshole. The movie wants to portray him as this broken down, sad, troubling, but yet, sympathetic older dude who can’t seem to get on with the way the world’s turning, but what I see is just an old grump, who’s practically rude and terrible to everyone around him and for what reasons? For the sake of tradition? The tribe? Just because?
Honestly, I never quite figured it out and it seems like just another instance of Caro dealing with something, but never fully realizing. There’s a lot of that in Whale Rider and it seems like a shame, because everything about the look, the magical, sometimes fantastical-feel to it, and even the gritty, raw moments of emotion, work, but when it comes down to everything else, the movie, as well as Caro, just don’t know where to go or what to do.
Oh well, at least it made money and reminded people that New Zealand movies don’t have to just be Lord of the Rings.
Consensus: For a movie with so much beauty and interesting ideas about, believe it or not, breaking tradition and feminism, it’s a shame that Whale Rider is so messy and unfocused to fully get itself together.
5.5 / 10