October 31, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

”It’s about a girl who’s trying to find who she is in a male-dominated society,” explains Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 13-year-old star of Niki Caro’s inspiring coming-of-age film, ”Whale Rider” (PG-13, 101 mins., Columbia TriStar). The tale of the Maori in New Zealand has been embraced around the world, proving that it’s more than a chick flick. ”One man said he saw his grandfather in Koro, the patriarch,” Castle-Hughes says, happily surprised. ”He could relate, even though he was an Italian from New Jersey.” She hopes the DVD — which includes a must-see behind-the-scenes cast featurette and a doc on the making of a Te Waka canoe — will be equally successful. The movie’s message is a universal one: ”If you want something, you’ve got to go out and grab it with both hands,” says Castle-Hughes, who has a firm grasp on her accelerating career, with ”Star Wars: Episode III” lined up as her next project. But her brothers and sister back in Auckland, New Zealand, keep her grounded: ”They say, ‘It’s still your time to wash the dishes.’ It brings me back down to earth.” — Sumeet Bal

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