Magazine article The Christian Century

Girl Power

Magazine article The Christian Century

Girl Power

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE most satisfying films of the year, Niki Caro's Whale Rider, is set in a small Maori village on New Zealand's eastern shore. The film begins with the juxtaposition of life and death, as a mother dies giving birth to twins. The male twin also dies, leaving the infant girl, Pai, as the sole survivor of this sad day. What makes her arrival all the more difficult for her family--especially her stern grandfather, Koro, the aging tribal chief--is that the dead grandson was prophesied to be the heir, the one who would lead the struggling tribe once Koro passed on. What use is a girl? he observes bitterly, as he all but abandons her in the delivery room.

As the years pass, however, it becomes clear that Pal (named after the tribal ancestor, Paikea, who supposedly arrived at the village on the back of a whale) has all the right stuff to become the next chief, including intelligence, creativity, courage, patience and as much wisdom as a young girl can possess. But all that is not enough for Koro, who is unable to see beyond the sex of his grandchild. He starts looking elsewhere in the village for the next chief, going so far as to initiate male-only training sessions, forcing the persistent Pai to peek through windows and around corners for the knowledge she desperately seeks.

What makes Whale Rider more than just another uplifting coming of age story is the complex relationship between Koro and Pai. While it would be easy to turn the story into a simplistic feminist tale of a man who can't appreciate what a girl is capable of, writer-director Caro, working from a 1986 novel by Witi Ihimaera, takes it a step further by showing how the only one who appreciates Koro's dilemma is Pai herself. She's not happy about it, but as a born leader, she understands the responsibility weighing on him--that he's doing what he believes is right for his village.

The movie is thick with other moving characters, including Pai's grandmother, Nanny Flowers, the proud matriarch of the tribe, who must stand by her suffering husband even when she knows he is wrong; Pai's father, whose grief at the death of his wife and son forces him to flee his home; and the father's younger brother, a once-proud warrior who has gone to seed, only to be rescued by the spiritual hunger of his young niece.

The film's heart and soul is in the stunning performance by first-time actress Keisha Castle-Hughes as Pai. …

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