I went back into the vault for this week's top pick, finally taking a look at Niki Caro's 2002 film "Whale Rider". This modest indie drama came to us all the way from New Zealand is most commonly remembered for the Oscar-nominated performance of its young lead Keisha Castle-Hughes. At the tender of 12, she made headlines as the youngest ever Best Actress nominee (recently usurped by Quvenzhane Wallis), managing to break through among the Hollywood establishment. It was a true Cinderella story that's all the more impressive when you consider she was the film's only nomination. Don't be fooled by this bit of trivia however, as the film surrounding her performance is equally as noteworthy.
"Whale Rider" is the story of Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a young Maori girl who is the most recent descendant of her tribe's storied whale rider, their original ancestor who came to New Zealand on top of a whale. As a typically patriarchal tribe, her birth is met with some disdain, which is exacerbated by the early death of her twin brother. None is more peeved than her own grandfather, who longs for a male heir to carry on the family legacy as leader and chief. As she grows older however, she begins to demonstrate all the qualities to prove herself worthy of the honor that is due to her. With scarcely any other viable alternatives among the young boys in an increasingly modern society, the community is forced to reconsider their perceptions of gender and tradition.
Much like her 2005 follow-up "North Country", Caro focuses the film intently on the development of the main character. There's an undeniably pro-feminist message to the film and the screenplay wears it effortlessly on the shoulders of Keisha Castle-Hughes. It's easy to see why she garnered the attention of Oscar voters, as she shows such maturity in the way she downplays the sympathy card. While the adult supporting cast wears their emotions on their sleeves, she's a model of introspective restraint. When she eventually does release all that internal pain and sadness, it's nigh impossible to not get swept up in her poignant journey.
This journey and its symbolism is the main concern of "Whale Rider" and its conveyed with a elegant fable-like quality. Visual metaphors abound through the characters' connection to nature and the whale in particular. It all culminates in a breathtaking finale that brings everything together to a state of utmost grace. For the most part, the film is unconcerned with flashy cinematography, but its conclusion captures stunning images which illustrate the circle of life.
With a superlative lead performance and fascinating window into a culture we rarely see on screen, "Whale Rider" is a true gem of the early 2000s. It's sure to leave you feeling moved and inspired. If you haven't checked it out before, I'd highly recommend you do so now.