Niki Caro's "Whale Rider," a huge hit in her native New Zealand, has been making the rounds of film festivals since last fall, and everywhere it plays it strikes a deep chord. In Toronto, in Rotterdam and at Sundance, it was voted the audience favorite, and it's not hard to see why. Like most crowd-pleasers and sleeper hits, from "Rocky" to "Bend It Like Beckham," it's the story of an underdog overcoming apparently insurmountable odds. In this case, she's a contemporary teenager named Pai (12-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes) who lives in a Maori fishing village among the Ngati Kanohi tribe.
Pai suffers a double tragedy the moment she's born--her mother dies along with her male twin, destined, as the grandson of the tribal chief Koro, to be the future leader of his people, the chosen one who would help them regain pride and power. Pai's grief-stricken father, an artist, abandons her to pursue his career in Europe, leaving her to be raised by her wry, wise grandmother (Vicky Haughton) and the fiercely patriarchal Koro (Rawiri Paratene). He grows fond of his granddaughter, but can't hide his bred-in-the-bone disappointment that she's not a boy.
"Whale Rider," which is based on a 1986 novel by Witi Ihimaera, is suspended between the ancient world of Maori myth and the contemporary world of gender politics. As Koro searches for his successor, training the local boys in the tribal traditions, it never occurs to him that a girl could be the leader foretold in legend. We know better. But if the film's ending also seems predestined, writer-director Caro spins her fable with an emotional and intellectual honesty that most of the time keeps it from feeling formulaic. The movie respects the native culture while seeing its limitations, and never resorts to the condescending exoticism that gave such cult movies as "The Gods Must Be Crazy" a bad aftertaste. (Caro had to get the blessings of the Ngati Kanohi elders before she could proceed.) And Castle-Hughes, who's never acted before, is totally beguiling. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jennifer Beals--she could be her androgynous kid sister--she possesses an innate grace that makes her transformation from outcast adolescent to spiritual warrior seem utterly natural. (In a head-to-head summer battle between the Ones, Pai would easily beat Neo in a personality contest.)
While "Whale Rider" is a doozy of a female-empowerment fantasy, it's mercifully free of any feminist smugness. The men may be rigid and tradition-bound, like the proud Koro, who forbids Pai to take his martial-arts lessons. Or they may be wounded and torn between cultures, like her absentee father (Cliff Curtis), who returns home with a pregnant German girlfriend in tow. But there are no villains here. Caro's movie tries to reconcile old and new, tradition and progress, just as it tries, stylistically, to reconcile the mundane and the magical--merging a thousand-year-old legend of the whale-riding founder of the Ngati Kenohi people into the world of jobless lowriders and tourist kitsch. Caro pulls off this delicate juggling act with impressively little sweat. By the time the story takes its climactic leap into the mystical, we're ready to follow it anywhere. The filmmaker knows how to seduce an audience without making it feel had. When a movie's this likable, it would take a very tough crowd not to be pleased.