Be on the lookout for this one. There’s magic in it. Having already earned prizes at film festivals from Sundance to Toronto, Whale Rider is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word: It wins you over without cheating. You look at the remarkable face of Keisha Castle-Hughes, only eleven when the film was shot, and you’re hooked. She plays Pai, a Maori girl being raised by her grandparents, Koro (Rawiri Paratene) and Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton), in contemporary New Zealand. Her father ran off after his wife died giving birth to Pai and her twin brother, who also died. That will leave the tribe without a leader when Koro dies, since girls are considered unfit to lead.
Pai has other ideas. As Koro educates local boys in ancient mysticism and the martial arts, Pai trains in secret, evoking the anger of Koro, whose ancestor, legend has it, arrived in their village on the back of a whale.
Director Niki Caro, who adapted Wite Ihimaera’s novel, has made a film of female empowerment that resonates deeply. Castle-Hughes is a star in in the making. She and her movie are worth cheering for.