Whale Rider (2002)

whale rider poster 2002 movie
8.0 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 8/10

Great performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes

Story could use some finessing at points

Movie Info

Movie Name: Whale Rider

Studio:  South Pacific Pictures

Genre(s): Drama

Release Date(s):  September 9, 2002 (Toronto)/June 6, 2003 (US)

MPAA Rating: PG-13

whale rider grandfather koro rawiri paratene

Grandfather of the Year?

Paikea “Pai” Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes) wasn’t the child meant to survive.  At her birth, her mother and her twin brother passed away.  Her father (Cliff Curtis) couldn’t handle the grief and her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) couldn’t accept that the hope for an heir to their people had passed away.  Banned from participating in the tribal traditions by her grandfather, Pai forges ahead on her own path, but tragedy could bring their people together and point toward a future.

Directed by Niki Caro, Whale Rider is a New Zealand-Germany coming-of-age drama.  Adapting the Witi Ihimaera 1987 novel The Whale Rider, the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to positive reviews, and it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (Keisha Castle-Hughes—making her the youngest nominee in the category at the time).

I saw Whale Rider when it was relatively new.  A family film and a movie about a bond between whales and people is generally not my wheelhouse, but I decided to check it out anyway.  I enjoyed the film and the cultural aspect of the movie combined with a great performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes make the film a winner.

whale rider keisha castle hughes pai speech crying

A great scene with a child actress performing at the level of many adults

The story is a coming-of-age story which forces a clash of culture within a small (and dwindling) community.  Pai has always wanted the unconditional love she never received from both her father who leaves and her grandfather who wanted a male heir.  Both characters love Pai in their own way, but it isn’t the way her character needs.  The role of women in the tribe is constantly questioned by Pai who is young and doesn’t understand the “tradition” pounded by her grandfather.  It is a battle of wills, but Pai always thinks the adults will make the right decision…and it isn’t always the case.

Keisha Castle-Hughes is young in the film and there are a few scenes where it shows…but it feels almost like that is more of the film’s fault.  In particular, the scene where she fights her friend using tribal methods seems put together in a way that hinders her acting…but any question you have is redeemed by the fantastic speech she gives in honor of her grandfather in which she fights the emotions that have built up over years in a man who has disappointed her and made her feel that she failed simply because she was born a girl.  She’s backed up by a strong cast that helps bring out this good performance.

whale rider keisha castle hughes

Ride that whale!

The movie is visual, but it is also maybe not what you’d expect.  Often movies with Polynesian and South Pacific backgrounds are filled with palm trees, sunny beaches, and crystal clear water.  Here, the land seems cold, wet, and kind of dark.  It isn’t the typical beauty that is milked by many filmmakers when they set their films in the location.

Whale Rider is a nice, strong movie that can be enjoyed by a family.  It raises questions about sexism, the role of women in society, and how history can be both a sense of pride or a burden.  The movie is a strong introduction for a young actress who has a lot of talent but has stumbled occasionally in her path.  I always like when she shows up in something because I know the potential she has…which kind of also goes for Pai.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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