The 2002 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival saw the world premiere of the New Zealand-set drama Whale Rider. The film went on to win the People’s Choice Award that year and it resulted in 13 year old star Keisha Castle-Hughes to become the then-youngest person to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Whale Rider tells the story of Paikea Apirana (Castle-Hughes), a young Maori girl in a coastal community in New Zealand. Her twin brother and mother died during her birth, which brings shame to her grandfather and tribal chief Koro (Rawiri Paratene), who wanted a male grandchild to become the next chief. Against her grandfather’s wishes, Paikea secretly trains to become a leader and join her family’s long line of chiefs, dating back to the mythical Whale Rider.
Whale Rider is a Maori fable about a young girl, who wants to fulfill her destiny as her tribe’s next chief, even though the role is traditionally meant for a man. Paikea is constantly at odds with her very traditional grandfather, who blames her for all the bad luck the family has been having. However, Paikea is supported by her grandmother Nanny (Vicky Haughton) and her uncle Rawiri (Grant Roa), who secretly trains her.
Whale Rider is centered around a great lead performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes. 13 years later, this is probably still the best-known role for Castle-Hughes, even though the now 25 year old actress appeared on the latest season of Game of Thrones. It it is almost a shame that Keisha Castle-Hughes didn’t end up with a career like Saoirse Ronan, who also received an Oscar nomination at 13 years old and ended up being quite successful afterwards. Since Keisha Castle-Hughes is still quite young, it’s probably still too soon to call Whale Rider a one hit wonder for her and she still has time to have a breakthrough role as an adult.
That all said, Whale Rider is a quite fine film. The film is quite critical of patriarchy, particularly within the Maori culture. In fact, apparently special chants were performed during the making of the film to ensure that the traditionally male acts that Keisha Castle-Hughes performs in the film didn’t end up bringing bad luck. I sort of expected that whales would be a larger element of the film, though they don’t really factor into the plot until the final act. Since it’s ultimately a very inspirational story, I can see why Whale Rider charmed so many when it premiered at TIFF.
★ ★ ★ ★ | LIKED IT