A man named Paikea arrives in New Zealand on the back of a whale, founding the Ngati Konohi tribe. Henceforth, the first-born male of every generation inherits Paikea's name and his role of rangatira, or leader.
So goes the Maori legend at the heart of Whale Rider, the feel-good Kiwi film based on Witi Ihimaera's 1986 best-selling novel about a prepubescent girl who dares to assume the name Paikea. A noble premise...which doesn't exactly spell hit. Yet the movie won audience awards at the Sundance, Rotterdam, and Toronto film festivals, and after just four weeks of limited release in the U.S. has earned $2.3 million, making it, potentially, this summer's unlikely alterna-hit.
Director and screenwriter Niki Caro, 36, saw it as an ''opportunity to make a story of an 11-year-old girl's spiritual, instead of sexual, awakening. That story hadn't been told yet.'' As a pakeha (New Zealander of European descent) directing a Maori cast, Caro had initial reservations: ''It was a terrible responsibility -- not just to Witi and the book, but [especially] to the people of Ngati Konohi. I so desperately wanted to make something that they could be proud of.''
The Maori media did indeed criticize the choice of Caro, who had made just one other film. But after the tribe's chief personally endorsed her, and after finding the extraordinarily gifted 11-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes for the lead role of Pai, ''I never had a moment's anxiety that I had the Ngati Konohi's support.''
This hard-won confidence paid off: In addition to becoming New Zealand's second-highest-grossing local film ever, with $4 million (about what it cost to make), Rider has won praise from the Maori community. ''My family loves it,'' says Rawiri Paratene, 49, who plays Pai's fiercely traditional grandfather. ''Keisha may win the hearts of the world, but it's especially important for me and my female relations that she's won the hearts of Maori women and girls.'' Adds Caro: ''Maori have really taken ownership. And I'm just so happy to step right back and let the film be what it needs to be for [them] and for people all over the world.''
As for what it will mean in this corner of the globe, so far so good. ''There's always room for an alternative to popcorn stuff,'' says Rogers & Cowan president Bob Berney, who's heading the marketing campaign. ''This is a trip to an exotic world. And there's a spiritual quality. Given everything that's going on in the real world, that's a plus.''
For Castle-Hughes, now 13, the appeal is simple. ''Everyone has a family and they can all relate to the characters.'' And the girl-power message? ''It's awesome!''