Review: Whale Rider

As part of our July 4th celebrations, we went to see Whale Rider, a fine new import film from New Zealand, starring a cast of mostly untested, mostly Maori actors.

In short, unless you hate dramas with a passion, find a theater that is showing this film and go and see it.

Upon leaving the theater, I stated "We need more dramas like that." and I meant it. The film succeeded in providing the audience with one hour and forty-five minutes of emotional content helped along by stunning scenery and seemingly-effortless acting.

I won't make any specific comments about the plot, because it is beautifully orchestrated with a sufficient number of turns to leave the audience with a feeling of resounding sincerity. The route that it takes from the beginning to the end strengthens the film's sincerity and reinforces its basic conflicts without making use of the common plot device "buttons" that usually adorn films that seek to resolve questions that involve not only individuals, but also something larger.

In the case of Whale Rider, the "something larger" is the future of the Maori tribe of which the main character's grandfather is the leader. The scenery is used superbly to communicate the background and current state of the tribe. There are a couple of scenes that add to that with specific commentary, but the somber weather and breathtaking, but muted, landscape do much of the heavy lifting.

Further enveloping the viewer in the story is the acting of the cast, and especially that of newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes. She provides a thoughtful main character whose energy is infectious and whose presence draws everyone's attention when she is on the screen. However, the film would not have survived without similarly strong performances by the actors and actresses who played her father, grandfather and grandmother.

If you don't see this in the theater, you will be disappointed, as some of the scenes work much better on the big screen than I predict that they will on the small screen. However, if you can't make it, be sure to hit your local rental establishment when it becomes available, as this will clearly be one of the best films of this year (at least for audiences in the States, where it was not released until this year).

Just in case you don't want to take my word for it, this film has also won a number of awards:

  • Rotterdam Film Festival, Audience Award
  • San Francisco International Film Festival, Audience Award
  • Seattle International Film Festival, Golden Space Needle Award
  • Toronto International Film Festival, People's Choice Award
  • Sundance Film Festival, Audience Award

And, to top it off, I just read Ebert's review and he gave it 4 stars.