Whale Rider, when I first saw in 2002, cast an spell on me. That spell is still with me, it did not only survive a second viewing of the film, but was reinforced by it (I picked up a DVD for only £3 at HMV Hull). I regard it as one of the great films of the past decade: tender and yet not sentimental, funny without being a comedy, casting an eye on Maori society without being a documentary, depicting a conflict between tradition and modernity without moralizing. Critics called it spellbinding when it was released in 2002, I agree with that comment.
The heroin of the film, 11 year old Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), is the grand daughter of Koro, a Maori chief, the last descendant of a long line of chiefs which can be traced to the mythical Paikea - who came to New Zealand riding a whale. She, as being the first born, should have been destined to be the next leader of Koro's people. Yet, because she is a girl, Koro rejects her, in spite of his paternal love for her. The legend of the mythical Paikea cast an spell on her, and she is determined to repeat his legendary feast, against the odds of her grandfather rejection and herself being a girl. Yet, she succeeds after rescuing a stranded pod of beached whales by riding their leader, as her mythical ancestor once did. I was encouraging her to do so. It is that kind of film.
It is a poetical and beautifully shot film, I strongly recommend it if you haven't seen it yet. Keisha Castle-Hughes gave a formidable performance in this film, and I hope she has done well in her successive movies.