The film “Whale Rider” took me on a whale of an emotional ride. Though there is a recurrent and overarching feeling of “great-whale-in-the-sea” calm, strength and beauty, there is a strong undercurrent of emotional turmoil, with which each of the main characters struggle.
Each experiences an Eriksonian/Psychosocial crisis:
At 12 years old, the main character, Paikea “Pai,” has successfully navigated through Erikson’s first four stages. She exhibits much industry over inferiority, with more skills and competence than her peers. Riding her bicycle, she passes a bus full of boys, she beats hemi in a taiaha (fighting stick) challenge, she’s always a lead in local cultural performances, and her writing earns her a prestigious award. Pai’s struggle is in the Identity vs. Identity/Role Confusion stage. She wants so much to become the leader that she feels called to be, and is obviously equipped to be, but her father, and Maori tribe tradition, doesn’t allow a female to be chief/leader. She’s torn between her desire to lead, and her Paka’s and tribe’s refusal to allow her to lead. At one point, she nearly leaves for Europe with her father, before being called back to stay on the island by the whales. Pai stays true to her “true” self, and her virtue is fidelity. Grandfather, Koro (a.k.a. Paka), experiences Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair. He’s obviously been very generative in raising Pai to be such an amazing young lady.
However, due to his Maori tradition “blinders,” he begins to stagnate, because he won’t allow Pai to continue on her path to leadership. Along with his slide from generativity to stagnation, he moves from integrity to despair, despairing that as much as he wants it, and as hard as he’s working for it, a new Maori leader/chief escapes him. It’s not until the end of the story that Koro breaks free from his “inside-the-box” thinking, stagnation and despair, and embraces Pai as a gifted leader, saying to her “wise leader, forgive me. I am but a fledgling new to flight.” Now that’s generativity and integrity in action! It’s uplifting to see Koro regain his caring and wisdom. Like Koro, grandmother, Nani, experiences Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair. But unlike him, makes much more of an effort to stay in generativity and integrity. She slips into despair, only when it seems that stubborn Koro might never accept Pai, or any of his children, as they are, for who they are.
This is when Nani leaves him, bringing Pai along with her. She possesses all of Erikson’s stages’ virtues, especially love, care and wisdom. Pai’s father, Porourangi, experiences Identity vs. Identity/Role Confusion, and Intimacy vs. Isolation. He affirms his identity as an artist based in Europe, in the face of Koro’s challenge that he should be leading, or at least staying with and supporting, his people. After obviously sharing deep intimacy with his wife, he found new love with a woman in Europe, with whom he fathered another child. It was clear that Porourangi shared intimacy and understanding with Pai, despite the fact that they lived so far apart. He also shared a love-hate intimacy with Koro, apparent in their greeting embrace, followed by their angry dispute.
Uncle Rawiri, also experiences Identity vs. Identity/Role Confusion, and Intimacy vs. Isolation. He initially assumes the identity of his dead-beat friends: a “live-for-today” slacker. He seeks intimacy with his girlfriend, and to a lesser degree, with his buddies. When Pai asks him for help learning taiaha, Rawiri begins to recreate his identity as a strong, fit, Maori tribesman. He even starts jogging on the beach! In addition to establishing a stronger identity, he builds upon his intimacy with Pai, and gains generativity and integrity as he teaches her and helps her along.
Koro’s parenting pattern seems to be a mix of Authoritative and Authoritarian Parenting (page 264). Based upon how well-adjusted Pai is at the age of 12, it’s apparent that Koro and Nani use plenty of authoritative parenting. However, when it came to Pai’s stepping out of the Maori traditional “box,” Koro took a much more authoritarian approach, disciplining Pai harshly, and giving her no opportunity to discuss her opinion or emotions. Part of Koro’s punishment was his aloofness and withholding of affection. Since Pai was likely more used to Koro’s and Nani’s authoritative approach, it must have been that much more difficult for her to bear Koro’s authoritarian parenting.
I appreciate that Pai reaches a stage of Kohlberg’s Three Levels and Six Stages of Moral Reasoning (page 336), that’s beyond her years. While most 12-year-olds would function in Level 2, Stage 3: “good girl” and “nice boy,” and some in Level 2, Stage 4: “law and order,” Pai achieves the morality of Level 3, Stage 5: “social contract,” and Stage 6: “universal ethical principles.” It would be much easier for her to follow Level 2 moral reasoning, following Koro’s wishes, and staying within the traditional Maori “good girl” and “law and order” moral boundaries. But urged on by a passion for her family, people, history and beautiful local sea and island wildlife, she rightfully breaks the Maori social contract and follows universal ethical principles, in order to bring hope and life back to the whales, her family and people. She does so by asserting her leadership, in opposition to Koro and her Maori community’s tradition of male leadership.
I loved this movie because it was so visually and aurally beautiful, and the characters were passionate and believable. Pai has passion for her family, people, traditions and natural surroundings,. Koro has the same, but is forced to wrestle with the realization that there are no Maori boys or men qualified to lead. It was a joy to see him figure it out in the end, and head out to sea alongside Pai, who was everything he yearned for but couldn’t see that it/she was right in front of him. Nani is an amazing, passionate nurturer, who knows how to, for the most part, run things, while keeping Koro thinking that he’s in charge. Being an artist myself, I appreciated Porourangi’s passion for his art and family – though it was obvious why he couldn’t live with Koro.
It was fun to see Rawiri’s passion for teaching Pai the “old ways” carry over to influence him to clean up his own act. I dream of someday positively impacting people with my art, in the face of many voices (often including my own), which say that it’s not practical or possible. So it was encouraging for me to see Pai hold on to her dream and succeed. The scenes that stood out for me were the ones that showed Maori culture: Rawiri, and later, Pai, demonstrating their taiaha skills, Pai’s performances, and the final scenes of boat-launching festivities. I also appreciated the awkward, mostly silent dinner scene after Koro caught Pai taiaha fighting with Hemi, the humorous scenes with the under-achieving boys, and the imaginatively shot and magical whale-riding scenes.