Whale Rider [subtitled in part]

Whale Rider has many of the characteristics of a generic, family-friendly, politically correct (gives recognition and support to a non-white, non-European, non-Christian culture, and sends the message that girls are as good as if not better than boys and should accept no limits on what they can do in life), feel-good, mainstream Hollywood movie. Which would be fine if that were all that it is. You know, good for kids, largely unobjectionable beyond being a bit didactic and predictable in its values, not the type of film I would go out of my way to see but would maybe recommend to any 11 year old girls in my life.

I’d say, though, that it rises modestly above the generic version of such a film. I mean it’s still tame and it’s still ultra-careful to make sure that every nonwhite or female character is presented so as to encourage respect and empathy, but there’s plenty to like here. For what it is, it’s surprisingly enjoyable even for someone like me.

Set in New Zealand, Whale Rider is the story of a 12 year old Maori girl named Pai. She lives in a community that appears to be all Maori. Her grandfather Koro is the local chief. There are modest traditionalist elements in the community (Koro would certainly like there to be more), but for the most part it seems like a westernized small town. The role of chief appears to be somewhere between a figurehead for ritualistic purposes and such, and a small town mayor. I mean, for much of the movie it felt to me more like a symbolic position with little power or significance beyond that, but there’s at least one scene where the chief is shown conferring with a couple of other dudes about some bland municipal thing, so I think it’s a real job of some kind too.

The community is facing a crisis in that there is no clear successor to Koro as chief, and he is growing old. The rule of succession appears to be something like this: Only the first-born male child of a family is eligible to be a chief. Ideally there should be a direct line of descent in the same family from their first (likely legendary) chief however many centuries or millennia ago to the present one. The first choice for next chief, then, is the first-born son of the current chief descended from the first chief. The second choice is a different first-born son in that same family (like the current chief’s grandson or I suppose nephew or whatever, as long as they’re first-born). If there is no first-born son like that available in the family, then some other member of the community can become chief, but they still have to be a first-born son.

In a flashback scene at the very beginning, we learn that Koro had great hopes for a successor twelve years earlier. Apparently his own first-born son was resistant to the idea of being chief, however his wife was carrying twins—one boy and one girl—and the intention was that the boy (Koro’s grandson) would be groomed to be the next chief. However, the boy and the mother died in childbirth.

The remaining child is Pai, who Koro wants no part of, since she’s the wrong gender. Meanwhile Koro’s son, who was already kind of emotionally fragile and in a shaky relationship with Koro, is devastated by the loss of his wife and would-be son. He becomes even more estranged from the family, and leaves for long periods of time, including all the way to Europe (he’s trying to establish himself as an artist).

Pai is left to largely be raised by her grandparents. At first this means her grandmother, as Koro is cold toward this infant who represents to him another failure to establish a successor. However, soon enough he becomes very fond of her and they form a tight bond. In effect he’s too much of a softie at heart to permanently punish her for being born the wrong gender, so on a personal level he adores her, but that doesn’t make him waver at all when it comes to the rule about a chief having to be a first-born son. So he’s happy to ride her to school on the handlebars of his bicycle and treat her like his precious pet, but every so often something reminds him that she’s the wrong gender and a coldness returns to his attitude toward her.

Pai develops into something of a super-girl: intelligent, athletic, very mature and confident for her age, etc. By all appearances she’s a natural leader, and if not for the patriarchal succession rules she’d seemingly be a very promising prospect for the next chief.

With Koro’s hopes fading of a first-born male child emerging in his own family (he has visions of his widower son maybe marrying some nice Maori girl and trying again to have a son, but instead the son meets and impregnates a European girl, so that’s out), he organizes a sort of chief training class where he invites all the first-born boys of the community of a certain age range to learn the lore and skills of chiefdom (how to ritualistically use archaic weapons, etc.). Through a series of tests and challenges—some bordering on attempts to elicit supernatural “signs” from the gods, ancestors, and local whales (of much spiritual significance to these folks) as to who they prefer—he hopes to find a worthy successor, or the least of the available evils anyway.

Pai is unhappy that she doesn’t get to be a part of the chief training sessions. She hangs around the periphery—eavesdropping on the classes, pumping participants for information after the fact, etc.—enough for Koro to notice and scold her for. As far as he’s concerned, when he’s in grandpa mode he’s happy to indulge her, but she needs to respect that when he’s “on duty” she has to respect and follow the rules and traditions of their people and stop meddling in areas where she is not allowed. Nothing personal, he might say, but she is a girl after all.

Needless to say, Pai prevails in the end, everyone recognizes that girls should be able to be chiefs just like boys, and they all live happily ever after.

It’s interesting, though not at all surprising, that the movie depicts Pai overcoming all the obstacles a patriarchal society places in her way through her sheer extraordinariness. She is so awesome in all respects relevant to being a chief that even the most reluctant observer—her grandfather—eventually can’t help but recognize that.

A messier case, though, would be more of an affirmative action style policy. Imagine, say, that either the New Zealand government or some authority like that, or a sufficiently powerful activist group within this Maori community, determined that the gross underrepresentation of women as chiefs required not just waiting until someone female is so head-and-shoulders above all other potential chiefs that their merit can’t be denied, but loosening things up for women such that they would have a somewhat lower bar to reach to be deemed chief-worthy than would male applicants.

In its way it’s not an absurd notion (any more than affirmative action in general is self-evidently crazy or unjust). But it’s not much of an inspirational, feel-good story to depict a girl who is oppressed by a patriarchal society and consistently receives messages that in important respects she is inferior to her male counterparts, and as a result develops to be only 80% as qualified to be chief as the most qualified boy, and yet is raised to the position of chief in order to partly offset and seek to change the gender inequality of that society.

Anyway, I’m not going anywhere in particular with that; it just came to mind in thinking about how the movie makes Pai a nearly flawless hero.

As I say, it’s a predictably politically correct film in that Maoris and women are all presented favorably. That gets modestly tricky when it comes to the central issue of the film, since the traditional Maori ways are out of step with modern notions of gender equality, but the film does what it can to reduce any such conflict. So consider the message to be something like: The traditional ways of indigenous folks like the Maoris are to be respected and treated as equal or better yet superior to those of whites and Europeans. On the other hand, the oppression of women and girls is wrong. So the Maoris are right about everything else, and they’re well-motivated even in their mistaken embrace of patriarchy such that when presented with the facts in favor of gender equality they will see the reasonableness of it and alter their customs accordingly in just that one way.

And you can experience the bending over backwards to be as pro-Maori and pro-woman thing as eye roll inducing, but the movie is so well done in general, and so clearly has its heart in the right place, that I was more inclined to go along with the feel-good vibe than to indulge my contrarian side. I enjoyed the story.

Related to that, ultimately all the characters are positive. On the one hand, maybe it would have been a stronger story, and more realistic, if more complexity had been allowed, if some of the characters had had a darker side. But I mostly appreciated that these were all good people at heart, likable folks that it felt good to spend time with.

Koro, as the embodiment of the patriarchal tradition that is stifling to girls like Pai certainly could have been depicted in a negative way, but really he’s not. He very much warms to Pai and treats her well in all respects except the sexist stuff required by his group’s customs, and he’s not an ogre even about that.

He’s the kind of guy who is used to being afforded a certain respect and deference due to his office and his dignified mien. Now he’s aging, times are changing, and there’s a sadness in seeing him experience the gradual diminishing of that automatic deference. His wife—one of the most positive characters in the movie—is far from subservient to him, as she deftly and tactfully chooses selectively when to defer to him and when to let him know he’s not the boss of her. For all her obvious love and appreciation for her grandfather, Pai defies him at times, including on matters that are most sacred to him. The boys he brings together for his chief training lessons treat him with some degree of respect and are trying, but they’re a ragtag bunch that he quickly realizes aren’t up to his standards and aren’t inclined to somehow dig deep and take this all super serious enough to improve substantially in the ways they would have to. He has some degree of support in the community, but at times there’s a kind of loneliness and futility to his efforts to maintain the traditions that have held his people together for so many generations.

He still has his roar, but as an aging lion that’s no longer enough to keep people in line.

Pai’s father is another character who could in principle be more of a negative figure—an absent dad who’s wandering distant lands rather than raising his daughter. But he too is presented very sympathetically. You see him traumatized by his wife dying and his son being stillborn, and you see him making what effort he can to make things right with Pai.

He has a younger brother (ineligible for the chief position since he’s not a first-born) who is clearly a kind, supportive uncle to Pai. His wife or girlfriend (I don’t recall) is a similarly positive character, another good person.

Really even the conflicts are consistently a matter of well-motivated people who care about each other just needing some time to work things out. There are no villains in this film, or really anyone even close to being a villain.

Like I say, maybe you experience that as too saccharine or whatever, but I found myself mostly willing to go with it. It helps that it’s such a professionally written, filmed, and edited movie, and that the acting is of a high level (definitely including Keisha Castle-Hughes as Pai, who was nominated for the Oscar for best actress for this film, making her at the time the youngest nominee ever for that award—by the way, she was a total amateur with no acting experience before being chosen for this role).

From the little I read, the Maori reaction to the film was highly favorable, as apparently the filmmakers made an extra effort to make the depictions of the Maori lifestyle and customs as accurate and respectful as they could.

Whale Rider didn’t connect with me in a big way, but it’s a solid film for what it is (an inspirational tale for girls and families) and I liked it more than not.