Gentle modern-day fable about Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), an 11-year-old girl living in a small Maori village on New Zealand's coast, who starts to believe she is the reincarnation of her tribe's fabled savior - much to the chagrin of her tradition-minded grandfather (Rawiri Paratene), who believes the Chosen One can only be a male. In this case, that male was Pai's stillborn twin brother, whose death the old man indirectly blames on his sweet-natured granddaughter.
What follows is a soft-spoken family drama sprinkled with some magic realism and a little art house exotica. Castle-Hughes is wonderful in her debut role, with a face that effortlessly communicates strength, depth and sadness. She is matched by a sympathetic Paratene as well as an all-Maori cast who turn in nuanced, underplayed performances.
In the end, Whale Rider doesn't amount to too much other than an intelligent, family-friendly diversion, in spirit much like John Sayles's The Secret of Roan Inish, with rich cinematography and a few eye-popping visuals towards the end. It didn't stay with me that much, but it's certainly a nice way to spend an evening at the movies, and provides a welcome balance to that other notable film about contemporary Maori life, the punishing Once Were Warriors.