The genius of Girl Power — as a phrase, a T-shirt slogan, or a story line in ”Mulan” and ”Bend It Like Beckham” — is that it makes feminism palatable to people who get jumpy around words like ”feminism.” Girl Power isn’t limited to stories about girls; ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is a movie about Girl Power, as are most female-driven plots in comic-book-based enterprises. But the pre-sexuality of girls makes them ideal, unthreatening heroines whose demonstrations of ”masculine” courage and prowess are beyond reproach: Even in many conservative, patriarchal societies, little girls are allowed a degree of physical freedom that becomes unacceptable when they grow into women.
Whale Rider, an inviting international audience-pleaser written and directed with ardor by New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro (based on the best-selling 1987 novel by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera), is set in one such community, among the Ngati Konohi tribe of Maori who live along New Zealand’s east coast. According to legend, more than 1,000 years ago their founding father rode a whale in from the sea to what became their homeland, and according to custom, leadership of the tribe is passed from the male chief to his eldest son and to his son’s eldest son in turn. But something goes cosmically wrong at the beginning of this mythlike contemporary fairy tale: While the next male heir apparent dies at birth (provoking his father to bolt from the family), his twin sister, Pai, survives, aggravating her grieving, tradition-minded chieftain grandfather, Koro, by her very existence.
Twelve-year-old Pai (newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes in a great burst of natural stardom) glows with abundant but unappreciated leadership abilities. She’s an uncommonly resilient, gifted, and self-confident child, mature enough to love Koro (prominent New Zealand actor Rawiri Paratene) without bitterness despite the stubborn old man’s ongoing disparagement, and her determination provides the story with some lovely you-go-girl moments. (The movie won audience awards at the Sundance, Toronto, and Rotterdam film festivals.) But the air of Take Our Daughters to Work Day righteousness that lingers over the telling of one young person’s unique vocational calling feels uneasily grafted onto a drama about the preservation of cultural heritage that is entirely enthralling in its own right. Pai clearly and humbly hears the call of her ancestors — but we’re encouraged to pump our outsider fists in class-action solidarity.
There is, to be sure, nothing inherently controversial and everything admirable about a girl who saves the day by breaking the rules; meaningful tradition is a living, changing thing, without the evolution of which there’d be no women in the Christian and Jewish clergy, and no Cinderella Hollywood successes like ”My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But when Koro instructs all the first-born sons of the tribe in ancient warrior arts, or when the men and women of the village labor together to save a group of beached whales, or when cinematographer Leon Narbey simply lingers on the silhouettes of massive wood carvings against the clouds, ”Whale Rider” emits a far deeper and more powerful pull than it does when it surfs the popular swells of chick rule.