After the brilliant-but-bleak Once Were Warriors, you'd be forgiven for thinking that every movie about New Zealand's Maori population is going to be all doom'n'gloom. Well, Niki Caro's portrayal of a small Whangara community on the east coast of the island features unemployment, poverty, displacement and the clash of tribal traditionalism with modern values, but that's all just part of a feelgood coming-of-age tale.
Newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes plays Pai, a precocious kid who was destined to become the next chief of her tribe - except she was supposed to be born a boy. Despite the fact that she's fiercely intelligent and aware of all the ancient ways, her grandfather, current chief Koro (Rawiri Paratene), refuses to accept that Pai's the best person for the job and sets out to find a true chief. Koro and Pai share a deep love but his patriarchal stubbornness and her passionate belief in her destiny drive a wedge between them.
The result is a gentle and engaging drama which rises above its formulaic plot and staid direction thanks to the interest factor of this way of life and a remarkable performance from Hughes. Her clear, raw talent ensures that this first-timer, plucked straight from primary school, exudes a convincing charisma that belies her years. It's Hughes, more than anything else, that makes Whale Rider worth a look.