Based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera, Niki Caro’s film loosely retells an ancient Maori legend and is steeped in an aura of tradition and mysticism.
Keisha Castle-Hughes gives an outstanding performance as 12-year-old Pai, a girl whose mother and twin brother died in childbirth, leaving Pai to be brought up by her stern grandfather, Koro. Without a male heir to lead his tribe – Pai’s father is uninterested in such things, preferring to immerse himself in his art – Pai assumes the burden of guilt that she lived while her twin brother didn’t.
Despite this, Koro and Pai have a strong bond, but even this is not enough to let Koro see that Pai might have the strength and courage to assume the mantle of leadership. Pai sneaks off and learns the lessons the village boys are taught as part of their journey to become warriors and protectors of the tribe’s land. This is a wholly engaging film that never takes a predictable path. Both Pai and Koro are strong characters whose wills and ideologies clash, but this film shows that even when two people disagree, the can still love and respect one another.
The magical ending is not just uplifting, but transcendental and ties the themes of the film together in such a powerful and inspiring way, I dare anyone to leave without a grin on their face.