This lovely, lyrical fable of a movie is set in the Maori community of New Zealand. According to legend, the Maori came to Whangara when their great leader Paikea led them by riding on a whale.
Ever since, the Maori have been led by the descendants of that leader. The movie begins with the birth of twins, the latest in that line. But the boy twin and his mother die. Over the objection of the current leader, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the girl twin is named Paikaea. Her heartbroken father leaves New Zealand, and Pai is left to be raised by her grandparents.
Koro loves Pai deeply, but he is still bitter about not having a male heir. When she is 12 (an exquisite performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes), Koro assembles the local boys to begin to train them in the traditions of their culture and test them to see which has the courage, skill, wisdom, and leadership. It is clear to her grandmother (Vicki Houghton), to us, and to Pai herself that she has all of those qualities, but Koro, struggling fiercely to maintain the Maori pride and identity against the assaults of the modern world, cannot allow himself to consider such a change.
Writer-director Niki Coro perfectly suits the style to the story. The modest buildings in the midst of the starkly beautiful setting conveys the contrast between the timeless culture of the Maori and the ephemeral artifacts of the modern age. Pai’s perceptiveness and quiet persistence are always evident, but when she finally speaks from her heart, standing on stage in a school production, wearing traditional garb, she is purely luminous. The movie is not just genuinely lyrical, but, even harder to manage, it is lyrically genuine.
Parents should know that the movie has some tense family confrontations. The death of a mother and baby in childbirth is very sad. A character is injured, but ultimately recovers. There is brief strong language. Characters drink and smoke and there is a and a brief drug reference. A character refers to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. The movie presents a minority culture with great dignity and respect, and the theme of equality is exceptionally well handled.
Families who see this movie should talk about the traditions of their own cultures. How do we decide which traditions to hold on to and which to change to adapt to changing times?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Secret of Roan Inish,” “Into the West,” and “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” They should also find out more about the Maori culture. This site is a good place to start and this one has information about Maori carvings.