the story is about a modern day maori tribe where for 1000 years a male heir has taken over the title of chief, tracing their lineage back to paikea, the whale rider. the chief's oldest son's wife gives birth to fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. the wife ends up dying during childbirth, along with the boy. the father (cliff curtis) leaves the village, where the grandparents raise the little girl, pai (keisha castle-hughes). chief koro (rawiri paratene) ends up having to choose a new leader from amongst the boys, teaching them all the necessary skills to becoming a chief, hoping that one of them will be able to take the reigns. all the while pai stands patiently in the wing, the rightful heir to chieftain, the only thing disqualifying her is her gender.
this movie resonates. it's flawless in its storytelling, almost like a fable brought to life, a fairy tale about a girl who no one really gave much a chance (at least not the people seemingly in charge, i.e. the men), and how she triumphs over adversities to claim her birthright. it's classic in its tale of the underdog, and it's easy to fall in love with pai and root for her success.
i think pai's relationship with her grandfather koro is at the heart of the movie. her love for him is seemingly unconditional, returning to him everytime even though he treats her unkindly. koro's feelings towards pai is complicated, he loves her (he picks her up on his bicycle everyday after school), yet hates her at the same time for what she stands for, a failure on the part of his son to produce a male heir, the end of the lineage. pai wants to be chief not really for herself, but more for her grandfather, since that's what he wants, a chief to take over his place when he's gone. the grandfather, conservative in his ways, sees the idea of a female chief as an impossibility, and the revelation of pai's skills as a potential chief almost makes him angrier, a further reminder that no male heir will take his place.
the ending skirts dangerously close to being a really sad movie, but the final resolution is a happy affair, which makes seeing this film a worthwhile endeavour. it's been a while since i've seen a film so heart-stirring, so true, so beautiful, so easy to fall in love with. keisha castle-hughes' performance is amazing, the child with the stoic face, finally breaking down in the end, makes me tearful just thinking about it. there's a reason why so many critics have been trumpeting this movie, it really is that good.