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Movie Review: "Whale Rider"

It has been a very long time since I have heard applause at the end of a movie. People just don't do that anymore.

But loud applause was heard, and deserved, for this wonderful film.

The basic story, and I won't go beyond it because there are so many wonderful surprises, is set in New Zealand, among a group of Maori people, trying to preserve their history and culture (even though they have such modern problems as trying to quit smoking, and all the modest homes have satellite dishes), and the tradition of having their chief descend only through the male line.

When the son of the chief is expecting twins, they are all thrilled -- until the mother, and the male baby, die in childbirth, and the only heir is a girl, because the chief's son runs off to Europe to be a sculptor, rejecting his birthright.

The rest of the story is how this girl, played with incredible depth by newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes, tries to overcome the ancient prejudices against women becoming anything other than mothers and homemakers, and take what we clearly see to be her birthright.

The last half hour of this movie is filled with scenes of such incredible power and emotion that you will not fail to cry. Trust me on this one. There is danger, and potential sadness, but also great happiness and truths. It can be, and probably will be, viewed by some as a feminist film, and indeed, the director and screenwriter, Niki Caro, is a woman.

But this story transcends everything. It shows how human beings can grow and learn from their experiences, no matter how young or old they are; I'd even recommend this film for kids (maybe over the age of 8 or 9), since they can easily understand the story and the message, which is soaring and uplifting.

In an age when Hollywood filmmakers think the way to make money is just to stage more explosions, this film (the first I think I've ever seen that was made by, and with, New Zealanders) tells a story that's universal, that's touching, that's meaningful. It ought to win, at the very least, the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, but I wouldn't stop there: I hope the producers submit it for Best Picture.

It's only in limited release now so it may not be playing where you are, but even if you have to wait for the DVD, do not miss this film.

The guy who sold the movie tickets had black nail polish on. This isn't a big deal -- I guess lots of younger guys do this -- but the polish was chipped and he didn't do a very good job. I mean, if you're gonna do it, do it right!

AYRating: ****