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Force of nature 

Once Were Warriors meets The Secret of Roan Inish in The Whale Rider, director Niki Caro's stark, affecting film that often suggests a myth or fairy tale. The film unfolds in the edge-of-the-earth paradise of New Zealand and is narrated in the tremulous voice of a young Maori girl.

Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) tells the story of her own difficult beginning. She was born to a mother who died, along with Pai's twin brother, during the delivery. The birth of a son was meant to give Pai's community of Maori Indians a new spiritual leader. But the boy's death and Pai's survival make her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the tribe's current leader, resent her. Her gender has broken the line of warriors and, in his mind, left the Maori floundering anew.

The Whale Rider is a spirituality-laced story about Pai's deep connections to her ancestors and her struggle to convince her grandfather of her worthiness. Director Caro has tucked a powerful message about the diminished status of women in a male-dominated society inside a film with enormous popular appeal that never feels preachy or issue-oriented. Instead, The Whale Rider's microcosmic focus is on families and the complicated battles for love and respect that unfold within them.

This captivating, magical film about the growing estrangement between Pai and Koro is supplemented by New Zealand's rugged, gorgeous coastline and the exoticism of the Maori community and rituals. A force of nature in her own right, Keisha Castle-Hughes is winsome and heart-wrenching as the neglected granddaughter deeply in love with her grandfather but determined not to be ignored by the cranky old salt.

The Whale Rider has been an audience favorite at festivals. Its earnest simplicity and affirmation of community values clearly offers a respite from the obnoxious gasbagging about The Hulk, The Matrix Reloaded and other big-money movies clogging the already fatty-laden multiplex arteries. Opens June 27 at Tara Cinemas.

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