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Anything boys can do, girls can do better. That’s not a startling moral for a Hollywood movie pitched to female tweeners, but apparently it’s a little more controversial among New Zealand’s Maoris, who reserve certain mysteries for males only. The heroine of writer-director Niki Caro’s Whale Rider is the girl to change all that, as is clear from the fateful birth scene that opens the story: The girl’s mother and twin brother die in the obstetrics ward, leaving both father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), and grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), bereft, but for different reasons. Koro, the local chief, requires a male heir to carry on his leadership. Porourangi can’t imagine life without his wife, and he soon flees New Zealand for Europe. First, though, he dubs his infant daughter Paikea, which outrages Koro because that’s the name of the Maoris’ mythic (and male, of course) whale-riding progenitor. Twelve years later, Koro dotes on the girl, now called Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), even though he still considers her arrival a bad omen. When Koro decides that he must begin classes to teach the village boys the skills of Maori leaders, he excludes her. She studies on her own, mastering the secret knowledge—which just makes Koro angrier. Ultimately, it will take a pod of animatronic whales to prove what the viewer already knows: that Koro is a blustering old jerk and Pai is—sorry, Keanu—the One. Adapted from Maori writer Witi Ihimaera’s 1986 novel, Whale Rider is a worthy kid flick, a sort of Bend It Like Beckham for girls who’d rather swim with whales than run around a field. The one-sided dramatic conflict won’t hold most adults’ interest, however, and Castle-Hughes has only two modes: feisty and feistier. The film would be more interesting if it could conjure the power of traditional Maori beliefs, but the rites that supposedly mean so much to Koro never come to life. Like ex-Dead Can Dancer Lisa Gerrard’s score, the old ways just serve as exotic coloration for the tale of a thoroughly modern girl. —Mark Jenkins