Any year with one good children's or young-adult film has to be worth while. I'm not talking about this year's commercial mega-thunderers like "Daredevil," "X-Men 2" or 'Matrix Reloaded," but the charming and touching "Holes." And now we have another: the also charming, touching and very powerful New Zealand film "Whale Rider." And though I put it in the young people's box-office ghetto that so many of these films are condemned to, "Whale Rider" has much to say to adults.
Written and directed by first-timer Niki Caro from the novel by Witi Ihimaera, "Whale Rider" is the story of a 12-year-old girl in a Maori village along the coast. Her name is Pai, and she was a twin to a boy who died at birth, along with their mother. And with that sadness the story reveals the clan tradition that the chieftanship is passed from grandfather to grandson, and the chief, Koro, is Pai's grandfather. Having no grandson has undone him emotionally. Whatever Pai accomplishes, in song or dance or athletic skill is meaningless to him; at best annoying, at worst triggering a volcanic rage that threatens to destroy the family. Koro's only son has moved away, to Germany, where he is a sculptor and has no interest in perpetuating the clan.
Pai is played by 12-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, her first film, in an extraordinary performance that lets us into both the child and the chief-to-be within her. She adores her grandfather in spite of his rigidities, and she has the strength to endure his humiliating rejections of her. She's helped by Koro's wife, Nanny Flowers (Vicki Haughton), who accepts the traditional structures but won't abide her husband's rages.
And then a pod of whales, the clan's totem, beach themselves along the shore. No one can get them back to sea, and their death may be signaling the end of the clan. How the question is resolved, and what happens to both the whales and the girl, are the meat of the film's climax. It is a loving and beautiful and poignant resolution, and you may well find yourself in tears, as I did. Keisha Castle-Hughes plays her role as if not just her life but the life of her whole clan depends on her actions. She is one of those rare miracles among child actors - totally unselfconscious, open and frank in everything she does and says on screen, and transparent to the camera, and thus to us. A brave and beautiful performance.