Free Williemina? Whale Rider dark and deep

For 30 years, American movies have been empowering young women with the message they can be anything and do anything they want. Now the message has reached the rest of the world, specifically New Zealand, in Whale Rider.

The novel setting and unusual trappings give the story a freshness that has won over festival attendees, the vast majority of critics, and now art house audiences with a taste for the exotic.

But if you view it as "half empty," you'll see that at heart Whale Rider is as formulaic and shamelessly manipulative as any Hollywood opus, just not as accessible.

Although they end up in the same place, Whale Rider doesn't take the same pandering, feel-good route as Bend It Like Beckham to get there. While I respect its refusal to compromise, a few concessions would have helped it reach more people.

Nonprofessional Keisha Castle-Hughes gives a fine, natural performance as Pai, the 12-year-old heroine. Like the rest of the cast, she has an authentic accent, and as our narrator she disorients us in the crucial early moments before we've had a fighting chance to adapt to the unfamiliar sounds.

Whangara, on the East coast of New Zealand's North Island, was settled, legend has it, a thousand years ago by Pai's namesake, Paikea, who came ashore riding a whale. A new generation is awaiting a new leader, and Pai's father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), thought he had produced one until Pai's twin brother died at birth.

Her father has never fully accepted Pai nor forgiven her for surviving. He spends most of his time in Europe while Pai has been raised by her stern grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), and her fierce, secretly encouraging grandmother, Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton).

Pai's instincts of late have been filling her with a sense of destiny. She's not clear what it is, but it's apparently connected to whale sounds and visions. She feels called to participate when Koro starts a school to train the tribe's first-born boys in "the old ways" in the hope that one of them will become chief. Her grandfather denies her the chance, and Pai gets the training from her uncle instead, then practices with her best friend.

No matter how many signs are thrown in his path, Koro stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that the best man could be a woman. The title leaves little doubt about the film's outcome after a climactic sequence that's like a feminist version of Free Willy.

Although Pai acts rather tomboyish, you shouldn't jump to any conclusions about her orientation. In this context, the 12-year-old's power is more spiritual than sexual.

Writer-director Niki Caro, adapting the novel by Witi Ihimaera, maintains a rather gloomy atmosphere for a film that's supposed to leave you feeling good. The grandfather's treatment of Pai is downright nasty, and yet you're supposed to feel some sympathy for him because you know he'll either have to bend or break.

If you're seeing Whale Rider to learn about the Maoris, be warned: This is not the Discovery Channel. You'll have to pull your own information from what is shown but not explained in this fable of a leader emerging against all odds.