As I finished watching Whale Rider, Niki Caro's 2002 drama about a pre-adolescent girl who aspires to continue the line of tribal leaders in her Maori family, I had the dispiriting feeling that it was a so-so treament of a tired formula: plucky girl wants something, mean men tell her it's for boys only, and she proves them wrong by doing it anyway. Surely, it's a formula that is such obvious grist for the girl-power inspiration mill that it had been done a million times before, right? Maybe not. Outside of forgettable made-for-TV movies and cartoons, the examples of high-profile girl-joining-boys-club dramas are few and far between, with National Velvet from 1945 and Mulan in 1998 at the poles for the entire Twentieth Century. Since then, Bend it Like Beckham carried the torch in 2004 until Pixar took their turn with Brave in 2012. So, if the story of Whale Rider was really not as common in 2002 as it felt while watching it this month, why did it strike me as so uninspired?
Keisha Castle-Hughes gives a moving (and Oscar-nominated) low-key performance as Paikea, a Maori girl whose twin brother would have inherited the role of "Whale Rider" — an inspirational figure with a legendary connection to whales — if he had not been stillborn. Although Paikea is practically the only person around who shows an interest in tribal lore, her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) refuses to consider her as a potential leader, instead training her male peers to vy for the position and reignite a sense of pride in their dying customs and revive their depressed village.
While not cartoony, all of the characters in Whale Rider are one-dimensional, stubbornly holding onto a single idea until the plot requires most of them to suddenly change. There's no sense of dynamism to the relationships, very little soul searching on the part of anyone, and no wider sense of exploration on the part of director Caro, who adapted her screenplay from a novel by Maori author Witi Ihimaera. While the Maori setting adds a kind of flavor to this very direct story, there's no sense of perspective to the movie's wishy washy relationship with this culture. On the one hand, Whale Rider is single-mindedly critical of the gender prejudice informing the tribe's generations of tradition, but, by the end, it not only indulges in a mushy fetishization of that archaic tradition's sense of mysticism but it also uses a heretofore unseen magic as a deus ex machina. Perhaps Caro, who was accused of cultural appropriation for taking on this project, didn't feel comfortable questioning anything outside of this one archaic aspect of Maori life — is it worth asking if the only way to revive a languishing community is to cling to the racially-centered warrior ethos of an ancient tribal paradigm with a regressive blood-based hierarchy? — or maybe she just wanted to make a movie about strong girl and thought that Maori art looked cool, but it Whale Rider didn't even do that. Paikea is not as strong as she is stubborn, and rather than using her intelligence or some other developed resource to save the day, she succeeds by simply existing, which seemed like a pretty uninspiring and too easily achieved resolution.
Caro does a nice job in a few moments of highlighting the apathy in the film's contemporary Maori community, which is haunted by the absence of the ambitious young men who have left, while those remaining have let themselves go, or started their own tribes in the form of gangs, but this context is relegated to the background, and it's interesting to note that Paikea is the only young female character in the film. It might have been nice to get a sense of the life and hopes of other girls her age or, frankly, anything else that might have added layers of complexity to this bland, one-note story.
Whale Rider was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Bas van Stratum. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #509 / 2400 (79%). Whale Rider is listed on Flickchart as a "Feminist Film," and for Bas it's his fourth favorite out of 11 in that category. It ranked on my Flickchart at #1793 (54%), where it's #14 on my chart of 26 movies in the Feminist Films category.