Myth shares a slow, solemn handshake with modernity in the New Zealand-made Whale Rider, a film of ancient legends, contemporary mores, and the little girl who might be able to mend the rift between the two. A resident of a Maori settlement on New Zealand's east coast, Keisha Castle-Hughes has spent her first decade surviving the quiet desperation that comes from the unconcealed disappointment of those around her. While her father travels the world exhibiting his Maori-inspired art, Castle-Hughes has been left to be raised by her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene), a loving but distant tribal chief who can't look at her without being reminded of her stillborn twin brother—who, as a first-born son, was destined to replace Paratene in time. Able to trace his family line back to the ancestors who first rode the whales to New Zealand, Paratene has no desire to see it severed, particularly when so many other traditions have fallen by the wayside. Adapting a novel by Maori author Witi Ihamaera that's become a staple of New Zealand high-school reading lists, writer-director Niki Caro captures the sources of Paratene's despair without overstating them. His village seems in danger of abandonment, and those who have stayed have slipped into apathy or worse; Caro lets these details float in the background without explicit comment. When Paratene takes to training all the first-born sons to find a successor while overlooking his own granddaughter, Castle-Hughes decides to do some training of her own, with or without his approval. She's like Billy Elliot, but with messianic ambitions, and though there's a formula at the film's core, Whale Rider still has the good taste to make that formula go down easy. Taking her cues from Lisa Gerrard's ambient score, Caro lets the film drift at its own pace, an approach which greatly enhances its careful journey to a predetermined destination, as do Castle-Hughes and Paratene's endearing but unsentimental performances. When the film finally tugs at the heartstrings, it feels less like manipulation than the result of gravity.
More from The A.V. Club