Whale Rider, Niki Caro's gorgeous 2002 film, had me sobbing helplessly at the sheer injustice of it all.
You see, our young heroine, eleven-year-old Pai [the astonishing Keisha Castle-Hughes], is the surviving, unfortunately female, twin in a line of leaders that stretches all the way back to her Maori village's founder generations ago. And, you guessed it, all the leaders have been men.
But Pai's grief-stricken [her mom died during childbirth, too] artist father wants nothing to do with child-rearing or his traditional role in his New Zealand community; he leaves Pai to be raised by his mother and super-sexist father, the town's elder. And he leaves a vacuum in the line of succession.
Just as there is a certain sameness about seaside resort towns [the 'Fesser and I were in Kinsale last June, but we could have easily been on Cape Cod], there's a certain hardscrabble nature that working-class ocean communities share. Pai's town is no different. Rusting aluminum flashing, smoking [pot and cigarettes], shiftlessness, and a mocking--albeit deeply held--respect for the sea all obtain.
Life is simple in many ways, but Pai's grandfather, Koro, insists on making it difficult through his pig-headed adherence to the old ways. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to die a little every time one of Pai's well-meaning overtures is rejected. The actor playing grandfather Koro, Rawiri Paratene, has a closed-off face and a brush-cut rigidity that would make R. Lee Ermey proud.
Fortunately, Pai finds succor with her grandmother, and her pot-smoking uncle, and the strength and skill to realize her destiny.
Yes, that's the sort of plot that could be situated anywhere. You're so right. What elevates it into transcendence is its coastal New Zealand setting and the natives' relationship to the titular whales [there really are whales, and their somber, prehistoric gravitas is transfixing]. Director Caro's film, like Welles' account of the jangadeiros or Flaherty's footage on Inis Mor, takes you deep inside an alien culture you've never seen on screen.
The universality of Pai's struggle glows more brightly in this cinematically unfamiliar setting. Seeing it through Pai's tears, first of frustration, then relief, makes it shine.