Review: Whale Rider (2002)

A Three-Dollar Review.

I finally snagged a copy of Whale Rider from our local library, which, like most libraries, has chosen to confront a DVD culture by purchasing a bunch of semi-artistic/literary films and hoping people will be won back from Movie Gallery. It doesn't seem to work on anyone but me. I'm in the process of checking out every single film in the library, even the overly ponderous or barely literary ones (I watched Equilibrium the other day - clearly, some librarian somewhere okayed the purchase with a "well, it's sort of like 1984, except with Taye Diggs instead of Richard Burton. Plus, it's a knock-off of The Matrix, so that should bring in the kids."). And that's how I found Whale Rider.

I thought there was a reasonable chance that I might like it - a friend of mine mentioned that he'd seen it and thought it a "f***ing awesome movie" when we saw Keisha Castle-Hughes promoting it on Conan one night. And that was the last I ever heard of it, or Castle-Hughes - she's since only appeared in one movie, Revenge Of The Sith, and that was a covered-in-white-make-up-and-headress, non-speaking role. And I guess that she's the closest thing this film has to a star. So, no, this isn't a star-studded film by any means.

It's also not an expensive one. Whenever the film cuts out to the whales during the first 90% of the film, it's always the same whale in the same place, with just different shots of it. I have a suspicion that all of these whale shots were quietly shot in a holding tank of a Sea World in Texas on the manager's day off.. It's the sort of thing that the Mystery Science guys could lampoon without too much difficulty, except that
a) that show doesn't run anymore, and
b) Whale Rider is, in all other ways, an absolutely excellent movie.

Really. I'm usually not a family-flick guy, I'm certainly not a girl-power guy, and I'm rarely a little-kid-triumphs-despite-doubting-parent-figures guy. But this one's just so carefully woven, so cleanly assembled, so good, that I have to recommend it. And here are my main two reasons why:

1. Keisha Castle-Hughes is the real deal. I mean it. You'll see her around Christmas in The Nativity Story playing, no kidding, the Virgin Mary. They don't just pass the role out to any passing floozy dame (picture with me, just for a second, Jessica Alba playing Mary. Okay, now picture Jessica Simpson. Hang in there. Okay, now Paris Hilton. See? We got throught that. Easy now, you flinched pretty hard there. Tilt your head back a little, I think your nose is bleeding. Ooh, that looks nasty. Breathe slowly. The queasiness should pass in a second or two.)

Back to Whale Rider. Castle-Hughes was only 11 or 12 when she shot the film, and she's got that sweet, unpretentious innocence that good child actors always have. But she's also got that riveting, can't-look-away-from-me type of momentum that ties you to your seat throughout a whole movie, and then leaves you with a "geez, who was that kid?" moment when the flick finishes. Haley Joel Osment had it in The Sixth Sense. Natalie Portman had it in The Professional. Jodie Foster had it in Taxi Driver. We still remember these people. Mark this name down: Keisha Castle-Hughes. You're gonna want to know it later.

2. Writer-director Niki Caro is clearly a details guy*, which is what makes this film, and all good films, go. He's made a film about an ancient tribe of people struggling in a modern world. But no one ever mentions that they're an ancient tribe of people struggling in a modern world. This is a new concept in modern filmmaking.

Instead, everything is conveyed in details. The way the fathers never seem to stick around for any of their sons' training. The slightly untrusting looks in the eyes of all the boys. Everyone's slightly too-dated clothes. The way Castle-Hughes' unwavering faith stands out so sharply amidst a sea of people who seem to be barely avoiding rolling their eyes at every major event the movie throws at us.

Caro never says anything too strongly. He just focuses in on Castle-Hughes, and lets all the other details swirl around her as she struggles to quietly grow up while being forcefully pushed down.

Look, Whale Rider is nothing new. It's nothing you haven't seen, really. It's a little on the cheap side - until the big finale, during which the crew either made some extremely life-like baby whale mock-ups, or killed a whole pack of baby whales. This is one of those productions that you can't really tell. I've digressed. Let me start over.

Look, Whale Rider is nothing new. It's nothing you haven't seen, really. But it's sweet and unpretentious and you feel better after having watched it. It's everything these sorts of films should be and never are.

Total Value: $2.45

* After I finished this, someone pointed out on the Xanga version that Niki Caro is actually a woman. Whoops. Probably shoulda seen that. Mentally change all the "he's" to "she's" as you read. And keep in mind, this slip in no way determines my opinion of women as directors. There are some excellent female directors out there right now. Some of them are among my favorites, in fact:

Lessee here, Sophia Coppolla (Lost In Translation, Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette). Nora Ephron (Sleepless In Seattle, You've Got Mail). Penny Marshall (A League Of Their Own, Big). Uh... Jane Campion (The Piano). Mary Harron (American Psycho). Lemme think. Okay, Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice), and that grad student who made Girlfight and then Aeon Flux... Karyn Kusama. Monsoon Wedding, too, uh - Mira Nair. Valerie Faris, who just co-directed Little Miss Sunshine. Hang on, let me get at least one more, I can get to ten... Nancy Myers, who made Something's Gotta Give. There, so, really, there's lots of great female directors, even though I know that women can have a lot of trouble getting films made in Hollywood. Nobody send nasty comments.

By the by, while women directors have some troubles, there's a fairly high percentage of women producers in Hollywood these days, and the number rises each year. 4 out of the 5 films nominated for Best Picture in 2006 were at least partially helmed by women. Six of the major studios in Hollywood are headed by women. When I worked at Scott Free, all of our producers were women, and Scott Free's not a small company - that fall we were premiering Cameron Diaz's In Her Shoes, Keira Knightley's Domino, and James Franco's Tristan & Isolde. Plus we were working on Ridley and Tony's new films - A Good Year, starring Russell Crowe, and Deja Vu, starring Denzel Washington, both of which'll be out this year. So even if there aren't that many opportunities, at least things are looking at a little bit brighter.