Whale Rider tells the story of a young girl, Paikea, who lives in New Zealand with a stern grandfather who apparently needs to get modern. Every scene tells us this and gives us an opportunity to tsk-tsk his staunch rejection of his granddaughter who he believes can't inherit the leadership of this Maori village because of her gender, despite her lineage. She'll need to convince her grandfather that she can lead just as well as the boys can, and she'll need to do it before the end of the movie.
But just when you think you have this movie pegged, its sincerity manages to break through the thin characterizations and age-old plot. Young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes gives Paikea a richly expressive voice, and the turning point is an astonishingly heartfelt speech that she delivers at a school program for parents. The musical soundtrack goes silent, and the camera sits at the foot of the stage looking up at her while she talks about her admiration for her grandfather and explains how she destroyed a long line of chiefs by being born. In everything she does, she balances a challenge of authority with obedience and respect, as if she's trying to find a way to accept both herself and her grandfather's tradition at the same time rather than rejecting tradition outright, which would have been simpler for a movie like this. Castle-Hughes has uncommon grace and beauty on the screen.
The third act where all of our predictions come true has a quiet dignity, and although it does move from A to B as expected, how it gets there is surprisingly mysterious, and the common ground on which the girl and her grandfather land has more nuance than the setup would seem to allow. The village has a problem that manifests itself physically on its beaches, and we recognize immediately that this is the moment when Paikea must prove herself to her grandfather. But her proof doesn't involve boat motors, fighting sticks, or feats of skill like we might have guessed. It's more mystical than that. Destiny quivers in her fingers. She has the option of doing nothing; instead she acts, responding to the call of her ancestors and her village, which she is the link between. In her final voice-over she focuses on neither herself nor her grandfather but on her people and their future, a born leader, through and through.