“Whale Rider,” a vivid and ultimately magical film premiering at the Smith Opera House on Nov. 13, is New Zealand to its core. It was funded there and shot there; the director is a New Zealander, as is the entire cast, which includes many members of the Maori people.
Based on a book by Maori author Witi Ihimaera, the story is built around an ancient Maori legend. Centuries ago, their ancestor, Paikea, arrived in New Zealand on the back of a whale.
“Whale Rider” begins with the death of a mother. Protagonist Pai's (Keisha Castle-Hughes) mother dies giving birth to her and her twin brother, who also dies. Pai's grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the leader of their tribe, quickly makes it clear he cares more about his dead grandson than his live granddaughter. “A girl is no use to me,” he says. That's because, ever since Paikea climbed off his whale, Koro's tribe has been led by his family's eldest son. However, his own son (Cliff Curtis) has rejected his inherited role and left for Europe to be an artist. Baby Pai is left behind, to be raised by Koro and his shrewd, patient wife (Muzzi Loffredo).
A dozen years later, Pai is everything a leader should be — bright, resourceful, capable, unafraid and fascinated by her tribal heritage. She's also a girl, and that makes everything else beside the point. Ignoring the true heir under his nose, Koro gathers the village's oldest sons and teaches them tribal lore, from chants to martial arts, so he can choose a new leader. But Pai is not to be deterred and, as the title implies, her destiny arrives from the sea.
Director Niki Caro first worked to earn the tribal elders' respect and cooperation before shooting a single frame. Thus, much of the movie's appeal is derived from its observations of the small fishing village where it was filmed.
“Whale Rider” has won audience-favorite awards at festivals from Toronto to Sundance to San Francisco.
“Whale Rider” plays at 7 p.m. November 13, 14 and 15 and at 2 p.m. on Nov. 16. This PG-13-rated film has a running time of one hour, 31 minutes. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students and senior citizens. All seats on Thursday are $3. Call 315-781-5483 or toll-free 866-355-5483 for details or to pre-order tickets.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.