An emotionally potent combination of somber reality and soaring mythology, Whale Rider pulls at you with the power of both elements in a story that is freshly identifiable.

Carefully crafted by writer-director Niki Caro, the film never couches to cheap sentiment. Where there would be intense shouting matches in a lesser film are deep gazes or emotive monologues, all of them revealing and moving. Whale Rider glides around any convention it could possibly fall into and, as a result, is a strong film about perception, obligation and self-awareness.

At the film’s center is an understated, quietly fierce debut from teen-aged Keisha Castle-Hughes, who takes Caro’s carefully drawn characterization and illuminates every frame.

Much like last year’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Whale Rider invites us into a culture we rarely see and is intelligent enough to let the audience fill in some of the details on its own. We learn of the Whangara people’s thousand-year-old legend of Paikea, an ancestor who survived a capsizing canoe by riding to New Zealand, where the group came to call home. Paikea’s leadership spirit has subsequently been passed on to successive Whangara chiefs, always the first-born male.

Tragedy quickly trumps legend, though, when the next proposed chief dies at birth, along with his mother. Although Pai, a fraternal twin sister, survives, father Pourorangi is racked by grief and leaves the baby in the care of his own father Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the village’s current chief.

Pourorangi returns years later, spurring Koro’s long-held hope that he can perhaps father another chief-to-be. But news that Pourorangi is expecting a child with a German woman infuriates him, causing a search among young men in the village to find the next leader.

What he chooses not to see are the leadership qualities emerging in Pai (Castle-Hughes), who is intelligent, mindful of tradition and handy with repairing a boat motor. Refusing to believe the spirit of Paikea could reside in a girl, Koro blindly pursues another chief while Pai attempts to prove herself to him and her people.

Caro complements her beautiful images with equally shining moments that deal with the characters’ conflicts in forthright ways. While Pourorangi literally flees his legacy, other Whangara men run away while staying right at home by forgoing a sacred ritual for a drug-smoking joyride.

Spunky and stoic, Pai observes this dissent and her grandfather’s disapproval, but remains silent about it until a stunning scene where the camera fixes on her delivering a speech to him.

Through her and her relationship with Koro, Whale Rider essentially becomes a brilliant children’s film, one that reinforces the importance of listening to the generation above — and below — without ever turning saccharine. Caro keeps focus all along on the fact Koro and Pai aren’t antagonistic, but that they just can’t seem to connect with each other in the ways they want to.

Weaving in gripping observations about culture, family and determination, Whale Rider is a resonant triumph and one of the finest movies of the year.