Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2003, New Zealand)
Whale Rider was really a film that I had no expectations for going in and like most people who have seen it, got swept into it. It's a deceptively simple coming of age story, of a girl named Pai (remarkably played by Keisha Castle-Hughes), dealing with pleasing her grandfather in patriarchal Maori society. The film revolves around Pai attempting to get her grandfather's approval not just in general but also with the possibility of becoming chief of the tribe, something that no woman has been allowed to do. The film really hinges on the performance of Castle-Hughes and she succeeds magnificently, giving Pai the right amount of maturity but with moments of youthful insolence. Caro has a keen eye for extracting the right emotions out of scenes and while nothing in Whale Rider is visually or that thematically daring, it never has to be. The film rides so much on its characters and their performances that it takes a fairly cold-hearted person not to be affected by the film. That Caro takes material fairly unfamiliar to most outside of Maori culture or New Zealand and that relates it to a young girl's struggle growing up is a testament to how universal some film themes are and when they're done well, how enjoyable they are to watch.