Pai nonetheless embraces the culture that devalues her -- as an adolescent, unlike her male peers, she feels it. She's a skinny, solemn little girl in baggy secondhand clothes who goes around scolding adult women for smoking (bad for reproductive health) and who places unquestioning faith in her grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the stubborn tribal elder who at first rejects but then lovingly raises the girl after her own father, an artist, splits for Europe. Moreover, Pai seems destined for something. She's frequently shown peering pensively toward the ocean, at which point writer and director Niki Caro cuts in tranquil underwater footage of whales busy looking majestic.
Whale Rider, an adaptation of the eponymous book by Witi Ihimaera, is an affecting, lovingly made little film. It's also an awkward hybrid of girl empowerment and nature-is-magical realism, woven through with implicit commentary about the social dysfunctions of poor Maori villages: Call it Bend It Like Paikea, alloyed with Boyz N the Village and a modern Joan of Arc story in which God is a barnacle-covered cetacean. Caro can't just have Pai win, proving repressive traditionalism (and her grandfather) wrong -- the kid practically has to be apotheosized.
Still, it's hard to dispute that traditions both oppress and sustain us, and Caro packages the notion winningly. Whale Rider is attractively photographed in villages along New Zealand's eastern shore, where the gentle waves have carved stunning rock formations. And there are intriguing glimpses of how Maori traditions do, and don't, blend with a modern life of cars, crime and chronic unemployment. Pai's dad's short visit from Europe provides a look at the world beyond -- a world unwanted by most everyone, Pai included. Meanwhile, her genial uncle's layabout lifestyle, along with the "old ways" class Koro conducts for some soft-bellied, soft-willed boys whose fathers neglect them, reflects the younger generation's aimlessness, which Whale Rider proposes a dose of tradition can allay.
All this is conveyed blatantly, but without too heavy a hand, thanks largely to the cast. Castle-Hughes, just 11 when she shot her first acting role, is a refreshingly unaffected young actor, with that touch of attractive gravity some kids come by naturally. She holds her own in scenes with the experienced Paratene, whose curmudgeonly character requires nothing short of a miracle to change his hidebound ways. ** & 1/2