Filmmakers do not meet to come up with themes for the best films released in a given year, but it sometimes seems like that is the case. Two years ago, many of the best films dealt with altered realities: “A Beautiful Mind,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Vanilla Sky,” “Waking Life” and “The Others.”

Last year’s best films explored the meaning of life: “About Schmidt,” “Changing Lanes,” “About a Boy,” “Adaptation” and “13 Conversations About One Thing.” It may be too early to tell what the trend will be for 2003, but thus far, some of the best films released seem to be focusing on family: “Finding Nemo,” “Bend It Like Beckham” and now “Whale Rider.” 


“Whale Rider” tells the story of a young girl, Pai, whose birth is accompanied by the death of her mother and her twin baby brother. She is born into a contemporary New Zealand tribe where male children are valued much more highly than their female counterparts. Pai’s grandfather is the tribal chief and wishes that the boy twin had survived rather than his sister. 


The grieving father, who has lost both a wife and son, cannot stand by and watch his father discriminate against his daughter so he leaves for Europe. Pai, left with her compassionate grandmother and disappointed grandfather, grows into a beautiful, intelligent, strong-willed 12-year-old who will challenge the established roles of her family and community.


“Whale Rider” boasts many strengths. It is a wonderful story, well made and very insightful of a culture that most Americans know almost nothing about. The greatest strength of the film though is the perfect performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes. Watching this young amateur on screen is reason enough to recommend this film. She is beautiful and so very talented.


In simple moments, as when she and her grandfather are working on a boat engine, one can see such sincerity in her performance that is often lacking with more seasoned actors. “Whale Rider” succeeds in part because of the casting of Castle-Hughes. It also succeeds because of the great truth the film superbly expresses.


“Whale Rider” is a small, simple film and is easily one of the best films released in 2003. The story is a fable and, like all great fables, it holds profound truth. At first glance, it may seem to many contemporary Americans a bit ridiculous that the grandfather would believe so strongly in gender roles. One only has to look at recent statements from any number of religious groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention, to know that there are still many like Pai’s grandfather, who do not believe in the ability of females to lead, or more importantly to discern truth or hear a word from the spirit. 


“Whale Rider” deals with all of these issues. Pai cannot lead her people because of her gender, though it is obvious to the viewer that she is the most capable leader in her generation. Pai’s grandfather cannot accept that his own blood could hear a voice of the one he has always worshipped. This parallels the idea in contemporary Baptist life that women cannot possibly hear the voice of the Holy Spirit calling them to service in a way that would require ordination. 


Will “Whale Rider” change anyone’s mind? Probably not. Most people holding strong sexist views will never even see the film. Some who do see the film will be moved by Pai’s story and they will disagree with the grandfather, but never realize that this sweet parable speaks to their own entrenched opinions. 


If “Finding Nemo” is the film for fathers and sons, then “Whale Rider” is the film for every parent to watch with their daughters. Or at least the film for every parent who wants to instill in his little girl that his wish for her is that she hear and know the calling on her life, and that she does whatever it takes to answer that calling. May many parents seek out this wonderful film.


Roger Thomas is pastor of First Baptist Church in Albemarle, N.C.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief language and a momentary drug reference

Director: Niki Caro

Writer: Niki Caro

Cast: Pai: Keisha Castle-Hughes; Koro: Rawiri Paratene; Nanny Flowers: Vicky Haughton; Porourangi: Cliff Curtis.


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