Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.

An emotionally potent combination of somber reality and soaring mythology, 2003’s Whale Rider glided around any traps into which it could possibly fall and, as a result, became a strong film about perception, obligation and self-awareness.

At the film’s center was an understated, quietly fierce debut from teen-aged Keisha Castle-Hughes, who took writer-director Niki Caro’s carefully drawn characterization and illuminated every frame. Much like Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Whale Rider welcomed viewers to a little-seen culture.

Castle-Hughes is Pai, a member of New Zealand’s Whangara tribe — for whom tradition dictates tribal chiefs must be first-born males. When a combination of tragic death, parental shame and broken cultural rules converge, it’s suggested Pai could be the one to buck gender tradition within the tribe. She’s intelligent, mindful of tradition and handier than most girls at repairing a boat motor.

Caro complements beautiful images with equally shining moments that deal with the characters’ conflicts in forthright ways.

Yet, it’s through Pai and her strained relationship with Koro (Rawiri Paratene) — her grandfather and the village’s current chief, who blindly pursues another male successor — that Whale Rider essentially becomes a brilliant children’s film. It reinforces the importance of listening to generations above and below without being corny.

Caro focuses all along on the fact that Koro and Pai aren’t antagonistic, but they just can’t seem to connect with each other in the ways they want to as a family.

Weaving in gripping observations about culture, family and determination, Whale Rider developed into a triumph.