Whale Rider

It is a gold standard for audience choices at film festivals.

What is a most popular film at both Sundance and Toronto like? It will always be like 2002's "Whale Rider," a New Zealand tale of a 12-year-old Pai's struggle to become chief of her Maori people in the face of daunting sexism and tradition, largely upheld by her grandfather. It is a gold standard for audience choices at festivals.

As Pai, Keisha Castle-Hughes says in voice-over, "There was no gladness when I was born." Gender makes her unable to assume the role of leader. The story, directed by white New Zealander Niki Caro, is richer, more humane, and more interesting than all the other feminist films of the last decade, which have fallen short of showing male obtuseness and societal imprisonment.

I was so angry with Pai's grandfather, Koro, that I wanted to hit him (I, a peaceful man) to tell him tradition should be damned when the remaining heir to the throne is a superior human being who happens to be a girl.

The lush and rugged land is as I remembered it, both numbingly beautiful and graceless, like the Maori customs meant for only male leaders. Loving the land and fighting the men, Castle-Hughes as Pai gives a performance so powerful, I defy you not to cry when she does. She gives meaning to Ann Frank's question, "Who would ever think that so much can go on in the soul of a young girl?"

Rawiri Paratene as the grandfather Koro is almost as impressive with gray hair that belies his ignorance, but a handsome, tough visage to earn our respect because he is honest about his feelings. All others, including a number of beached whales, are as believable as the landscape.

The whales form the center of the folk myth in which an early Maori leader Paikea rode a whale's back to New Zealand and right into an unstoppable legend of leadership. The Inuit tale "Fast Runner," also reliant on myth, was unforgettable when the naked runner flew over the frozen tundra; when you see Pai race the school bus on her bicycle, you'll never forget how difficult we have made it for women to succeed but how glorious it is when they do.

Uplifting drama? Yes! Maudlin? No! The best movie this year? Maybe!